photo by Roberto Juarez
A polymath steeped in multiple fields of avant-garde creativity and a key figure for the consideration of "composition" as a practice across disciplines, Hills's filmwork is inseparable from his involvement with the (sorry to use the contested term) "language poets" as well as the Downtown NY experimental music and dance scenes. The music of John Zorn, Christian Marclay and Tom Cora wends its way throughout Hills's key films, along with fragments of writing and speech by Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews. Hills shares with these highly distinctive artists a focus on the structures of signification, the poetics of colliding fragments, and above all a Futurist commitment to the intellectual power of clamor and speed, only this time — this is crucial! — harnessed for the political left. Hills's films display a preference for what Peter Kubelka called "strong articulations," extreme differences between edits and even frames which push our capacities for understanding to the limit and then some...Henry Hills is such a form-buster that watching his films inevitably prompts a momentary disquieting thought: what's it like inside this guy's head?
— Michael Sicinski, GreenCine Daily
Henry Hills has been making dense, intensely rhythmic experimental films since 1975. A longtime resident of New York's East Village, he has ongoing working relationships with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets, composer John Zorn, and choreographer Sally Silvers. Since 2005 he has been Visiting Professor at FAMU, the Czech national film academy in Prague, and currently lives in Vienna. He received a 2009 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship & his films, which are included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, are available on DVD from Tzadik (www.tzadik.com). His films, with an eccentric humor, seek abstraction within sharply-focused naturalistic imagery & the ethereal within the mundane, promoting an active attentiveness through a relentlessly concentrated montage.
Henry Hills has made over two dozen short experimental films, videos & digital works since 1975. His dense and intensely rhythmic compositions, which seek abstraction within sharply-focused naturalistic imagery, the eternal in the temporal & the ethereal within the mundane, promote an active attentiveness through a relentlessly concentrated montage.
He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in the Creative Arts in 2009.
His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as well as the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, the Archives du Film Experimental d’Avignon in the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Arsenal in Berlin, the San Francisco Art Institute, the Rocky Mountain Film Center, SUNY Binghamton, Bard College, Cal Arts, & the Austrian Film Museum, Vienna. A cross-section of his film work, Selected Films 1977-2008, is available on DVD from Tzadik.
He received an M.F.A. in filmmaking in 1978 from the San Francisco Art Institute, where he studied with James Broughton, George Kuchar, and Hollis Frampton. His early San Francisco films (Porter Springs 1-3 and the North Beach series) are ornate, intensely rhythmic single-frame silent landscape studies. His first sound film, Kino Da!, a portrait of San Francisco poet Jack Hirschman reading in Russian and English cut-up into “zaums” and metrically reassembled à la Klebnikov, is frequently screened in filmmaking sound classes.
Upon moving to New York in 1978 he began an association with the “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” poets and with the first generation Downtown improvised music scene. Money (1985) documents these movements of the early 80s with an all-star artist cast, while simultaneously developing parallel formal innovations. One of the densest sync-sound films ever made (2500 “scenes” in 15 min.), Money, which remains invigorating today, was the culmination of a string of radically formal investigatory studies (Plagiarism and Radio Adios) into the possibilities of sound/image sync. Production of Money was supported by grants from the NEA and the New York State Council on the Arts. The film was accompanied by an equally experimental book, Making Money (Roof Books, NYC, 1986), published with assistance of a 1986 grant from NYSCA.
In the late 80s he began incorporating the results of his formal investigations into more widely accessible thematic works. SSS, his radiant 1988 dance film, converts the rubble of a decayed Lower East Side into a joyous playground. Bali Mécanique presents the rhythms and rituals of￼that Paradise island through a recreation of a Legong performance. Little Lieutenant, a collaboration with Sally Silvers, also with NEA funding, recreates the optimism and ambiguities of the Weimar era through innovative usage of rear screen projections. A festival favorite and winner of numerous awards, it was storyboarded and cut to a Zorn arrangement of a Kurt Weill song. Heretic, a pseudo-trailer composed from outtakes from a low-budget feature (The Genius by Joe Gibbons) starring Karen Finley, with music by Naked City, cleverly explodes a number of narrative tropes while satirizing the psychotherapeutic experience. Mechanics of the Brain, a “remake” of Pudovkin’s first film (a documentary on Pavlov’s experiments), is a dance film in the guise of a science documentary, also made in collaboration with Silvers, with funding from the Jerome Foundation; the original Zorn soundtrack is available on Filmworks VI (Tzadik). With Porter Springs 4 (a family portrait composed from footage shot and sounds recorded over 30 years) and A New Life (a video resolving a “couples” project abandoned earlier) his work took a more personal, emotional turn.
He has been releasing sections from his DV exploration Emma’s Dilemma, in progress since 1997. Nervous Ken (2003) is a portrait of filmmaker Ken Jacobs and King Richard (2004) a portrait of playwright Richard Foreman. A tentative feature-length edit was presented in 2012 as part of a presentation of polaroids by its late star, Emma Bee Bernstein, at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn
arcana (2011) is his personal interpretation of John Zorn’s text, “Film in 15 Scenes”. It was awarded Best Experimental Film at both Curtas Vila do Conde festival in Portugal and the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia.
Hhhh (2016) is composed entirely of imagery relating to the letter “H”.
2018-19 re-explored “single frame” in The Tree and The Falls.
Shot the last two weeks of the Sixty Day Workshop of David Zambrano at TicTac Art Centre in Brussels, Dec 2019 in 16mm and spent the entire Covid Lockdown period in Vienna editing Social Skills.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Hills received his B.A. in English from Washington & Lee University. He was a conscientious objector during the Viet Nam war, working as an orderly at Colorado General Hospital. From 1977-80, Hills edited Cinemanews, a West Coast film journal.
Throughout his career he has been active as a curator, organizing programs at Anthology Film Archives, Millennium, Collective for Living Cinema, Roulette, Knitting Factory, Segue and various clubs and galleries in New York, and more recently at Skolska 28 Gallery in Prague as well as at Ponrepo (Bio Konvikt), the theater of the Czech National Film Archives. He served on the board of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative from 1985-88, was Executive Director of The Segue Foundation — a non-profit literary arts organization — from 1984-1993, and was President of Hip’s Road — a non-profit new music foundation — from 1992-93.
He directed and edited a 1990 compilation documentary — Elektra 40 Years — celebrating the record label’s anniversary, & was one of the editors of Looking For Richard by Al Pacino (winner of the 1995 A.C.E. Award for Best Editing of a Documentary), as well as numerous music videos (including Patti Smith, Moby, and Kronos Quartet); was chief editor for the Burly Bear Network — the college cable division of Broadway Video, in 1997; editor on the Howard Stern Radio Show on CBS (98-99 season); & editor of the Guatemalan narrative feature written and directed by novelist Rodrigo Rey Rosa, What Sebastian Dreamt (2003), which premiered at Sundance; and principal editor of the last three Austrian documentary features by his wife, director Martina Kudláček: In the Mirror sf Maya Deren (2001), Notes On Marie Menken (2006) and Fragments of Kubelka (2011), with a film on Kurt Kren forthcoming.
He has been a member of the faculty in film at the Pratt Institute and the San Francisco Art Institute and has been Visiting Professor at the film academy FAMU in Prague since 2005, now tenured part-time, where he hosted 30 visiting American experimental filmmakers in a program funded by the Trust for Mutual Understanding.