In 1934 a weather observatory positioned on New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington
measured the highest wind speeds ever recorded on the earth’s surface. 231 mph. It would seem the recorded record has recently been broken, but I don’t think that makes the idea of 231 mph wind gusts (even one) any less terrifying. The Mt. Washington Weather Observatory is unique not simply because of the close eye it keeps on some of the world’s worst weather
but also because it was first of its kind and remains one of the few observatories to maintain such a human presence. It is also the site for Jacqueline Goss
‘ newest and longest film to date, The Observers
. Jackie has been making fascinating, research-driven (mostly) animated essay films and new media works for more than a decade that have screened widely and received positive, thoughtful attention. In each, she evinces a strong interest in the ways codes and maps and systems of measurement shape our human experience. Her interests lie at the intersection of the quantitative and the sublime while her wry, trenchant intellect serves as an able guide through these strange, conflicting worlds. I encourage readers to become viewers (and stay readers) with both the 100th Undone
and There There Square
, embedded beneath the interview.
The Observers, though, is different. Or, at least, it looks different. It’s more than an hour long, it was shot on color 16 mm film, it’s peopled by something approaching actors and it exists very much in the real world. There are shared themes, certainly, but Jackie’s personality is less palpable in it, sharing space with her collaborators and the sheer might of natural phenomena. The film’s insistence on observation allows us long (and longing) glimpses at human labors, modes of measurement, the tasks of observation, an observer’s connections with others and others’ times, isolation, the natural spectacle, hints of narrativity and the cyclicality of years, of weathers. If that feels like a list, it is one written on a möbius strip and has room for many more inscriptions.
For those of us who have followed your work for a while, this may feel like a departure of sorts. Not too long ago I described (the bulk of) your work as “research-driven, animated documentaries and essay films.” This film, however, looks and feels very different. It’s shot on 16 mm, there are real people playing other real people in it, there’s almost no animation at all (and when there is it feels like the camera has simply rested on these images as it has on other “data visualizations” such as a thermometer) and your own presence feels displaced by that of a camera. Can you talk a bit about this shift?
Well, a lot of it has to do with having a kid which made me feel somewhat isolated and longing for a collaborative adventure with people I trusted and admired artistically. Having a baby also killed off part of my brain too, I think, and made my previous work feel kind of “book report-y.” I wanted to make something that appealed to the senses first with the brainy stuff maybe a little more in the background. Having said that, I don’t think it’s a huge departure: like most of my work, it’s still about the ways humans and their measuring systems come up against an immeasureably complicated and idiosyncratic world.
I think animation is very interior, very connected to writing for me and live-action is always, on some level, a documentary– something happens in front of a camera that is documented. I expect I’ll go back to animation soon, but this project was so much about waiting for something to happen, to point the camera at the land and sky and wait for it to perform in some surprising way and it always did. In Stranger Comes To Town I was starting to get to that by using World of Warcraft and I’d like to find other ways of courting the unexpected in animation.
The film is very much about isolation, about the solitary work of scientists measuring, tracking and bearing witness to unbelievably difficult weather conditions. What about the intersections of human labor and the intensity of this landscape made this subject so interesting to you? This is to say, why not a film about Mt. Washington without people?
Mount Washington, NH and the Weather Observatory interest me particularly because I grew up in the shadow of that mountain and WEATHER is the ur-text for people I grew up around. When I started talking to the real observers who work there, I was surprised by how differently their narrative of the mountain differed from mine. For instance, the world record for highest wind speed ever on the planet was held by Mt Washington until just two years ago. A month after we finished shooting, a typhoon in Australia took the record. I was bummed out about it, having lost this little bit of notoriety but the observers seemed to feel ok about it — their line was “We’re just glad someone was there to get the data.” I realized their narrative is on one level much more quotidian than mine — they’re thinking about the micro: changes from hour to hour in wind speed, pressure, visibility, temperature — but also much longer: they know the mountain and its weather is going to be around a lot longer than we are and that gives them a certain perspective. I feel like that’s part of what the film is about.
One strand that seems to run through all of your work (most of which, Chicagoans should note, can be found at Video Data Bank) is an interest in different types of measurement, in codes and in the ways subtle and not so subtle boundaries and data affect people. Can you describe your interest in measurement, the aesthetics of data and so forth?
I never really formed a philosophy about this stuff but it just seems to have become the dominant refrain of my work. I think it may be something very basic about my temperament: that I long to know and experience the unquantifiable, but am also pleased and comforted by order and information. I don’t think I’m alone in that- it’s probably a tenet of being human. I do love stories about people who try to quantify, measure, and map but get their goals messed up by all the color and noise of the world.
In the production notes for the film you note (happily) that Dani Leventhal performs without affect and later you consider how to compose shots to avoid the feeling of artificiality. You also mention that you “fear telegraphing emotion!” I’m hoping you might expand on these concepts a little and describe, now that the work is complete, how you feel about the balances you’ve struck between artifice or construction and observation.
I’m pretty happy with it. There’s a shot in the film of Dani in bad and her eyes sort of travel up. All I did is hold my finger in front of her face and move it up and said, “Watch this.” That’s about an emotional as I let her get. When my Mom watched the movie and saw that shot, she said “Good acting!” So I felt like I had gotten something right. I do feel like the pitch is right. My least favorite experience as a film viewer is watching someone like Sean Penn go to town on a scene emotionally while the narrative grinds to a halt. I’m way more into Bresson’s approach where the actor doesn’t act, and the filmmaker has to bring the emotional cadence to the scene by making choices about light, composition, sound, and duration.
Still, I’m no Bresson and there are little moments in The Observers
that make me flinch. I wish Katya Gorker
didn’t frown quite as much (though that’s kind of what her face does!)
Many people have asked why we didn’t just use the real observers but instead used “actors.” Part of it was just the practicality of not wanting to bug them –they’re pretty busy. But it also gave me much more control to try things out. Obviously the stuff with the box is a fiction for instance. And I wanted to have some sort of fictional tension between the two observers even though they never meet.
Relatedly, you mention the notion of editing that is “often predictable (in an avant-garde fashion).” There are a variety of what we might call experimental or avant-garde techniques that filmmakers use much in the same way a conventional film might use their own codes. I think some of these reflect more a shared interest in, say, observation or in a slowed pacing (or, conversely, in an ecstatic, incomprehensible mesmerism) than they do a reliance on specific techniques to telegraph the work’s “experimental” characteristics. How important to you is it that these techniques be used in unpredictable ways? To what degree do these aesthetic signifiers help to situate viewers and their experiences such that, in this case, they don’t angrily require a less oblique narrative or are able to maintain a heightened criticality with regard to the veracity of the images?
Well I think you’re asking how do you pace it so people don’t get pissed off by the duration of the shots or have too much time to consider what’s fake about it? You’re right — some people hate this film because it’s a “nothing happens” film I love “nothing happens” films but I often tire of the predictability of the edit. For instance, I remember watching James Benning’s “8 1/2 x 11″ and, even though I love that film, I could predict every single edit point. Character leaves frame. Beat. Cut.
That’s OK — but I wanted to try not to do that — It’s hard! Kelly Reichardt helped me a lot by looking a early cuts of The Observers and pointing out every time I did it. If every shot or scene has the same arc, it’s fatiguing.
(an excerpt from The Observers)
The Observers is showing, on a loop, in the Sullivan Galleries here in Chicago until the 19th. Though the film functions cyclically enough that one could watch it twice in a row and find interesting intersections between the seasons, their observers and our own observations (and is bookended visually by these physical, home address style numbers on the observation deck), it’s over an hour long and does have a specific thrust. Can you talk about this mode of exhibition and, more broadly, how you want your work to be experienced?
Originally I did conceive of it as a loop– that you wouldn’t know which came first: winter or summer. The knots-tying and the drawing of the knots got reduced a lot in the edit, but if a viewer looks carefully you see that D’s knots are there when Katya is drawing, and you see K’s drawing when D is tying. So somehow they are communicating and it’s impossible to know which came first. The data interlude kind of stymies that read because it is so linear. But I love that it’s showing as a loop because that’s the real narrative of the mountain and what they do.
The cast and crew for this film are very small. It comes as no surprise given your background and milieu that your cinematographer Jesse Cain is also an experimental filmmaker or that your sound recordist/composer Holland Hopson‘s other work can be situated within an avant-garde context, but why did you choose two moving image makers as your on-camera talent?
Well these are four people I like and admire so much and wanted to work with. I didn’t set out to “cast” filmmakers — Dani and Katya just seemed right to me tempermentally and physically — I knew they could handle the mountain and they both are so interesting-looking to me. It also meant I didn’t have to explain so much what I wanted — they just got it. Dani especially just always did the right thing at the right time with her body. In Walter Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye, he talked about how Gene Hackman always intuited the edit as an actor and blinked where the shot should end. Dani’s kind of like that. She just “got” the pace of it.
Finally, if you could, please describe the shooting conditions of the film. I literally put on a second pair of socks when re-watching the work because the howl of the wind was making me shiver. Reading the production notes imbues the film with a kind of heroic quality. Was the intensity of the process an important component of your return to photographically-based image making?
Maybe more important to a return to collaborative filmmaking. I wanted us all to experience something together, to be stuck somewhere together, and to have to help and trust each other. In the winter stuff, we were rarely cold because we were prepared, but the wind was so overwhelming, we had to scream at each other or gesture to each other to make ourselves understood. It was hard, hard work but thrilling. Sometimes we’d scream at how beautiful the sky was. In some way the summer was harder because there were more people around and it kind of ruined the romance of isolation, but we knew that would happen and that’s part of the film. But we were still a team. At one point Jesse got sick and we had to rally and carry on without him. At that moment, I was super glad I had three other capable artists with me. I hope to work with all of them again I’m ready to carry somebody else’s tripod through 80 mph wind!
Jesse Malmed is brand new to Chicago. This is his second blog post for Bad at Sports. His activities as an artist and curator can be tracked at www.jessemalmed.net.