Watching Melika Bass‘ semi-narrative films often feels like living in someone else’s dreams: utterly inaccessible at many levels, but fueled by recognizable if nebulous desires, and structured by logics that make actions seem uncannily self-evident, no matter how strange.
Bass has been quietly making rigorous and rigorously strange films for a decade, and in 2011 she created an installation for MCAâ€™s 12X12 based on her film Shoals, comprised of relics from the shoot that extended Shoals’s imaginary pastoral-gothic world in the ambiguous space of a contemporary white cube gallery. She recently was commissioned to make a film for Sigur RÃ³s, VarÃ°eldur, conceived as a character study of â€œan unstable entity in a haunted vessel,â€ a gloss that can describe many of her half-created characters, both absolutely unknowable and archetypically suggestive of the heroes of fables and the antiheroes of fairy tales.
I first saw Bass’ film at The Presence of Absence show at Hairpin this spring, and then several weeks ago at Doc Films’ presentation of her work. We emailed back and forth about scavengers, the fantasy of regionalism, and making epic films as a constellation of scrappy moments.
MW: Are your characters living in a real world– are they real, or are they dreaming?
MB: They are real to themselves, but many of them are also indoctrinated in some way — into some kind of belief system, self-perception, and power dynamic. The quasi-hypnosis of these characters is a bit of Stockhausen Syndrome, but also something that mirrors the movie watching experience, or any kind of assembly-based experience (religious or otherwise). There is something fascinating about the adaptability of humans to any kind of situation, and our ability to find a logic in the most half-baked schemes, and perform all kinds of ritualistic behavior everyday because of those values.
MW: There’s lots of dream logic at play, almost a psychoanalytic feel.
MB: Interestingâ€¦what do you mean by psychoanalytic?
MB: I like this question. I am fascinated by how we cognitively create our own logic, justification, explanation, rationalization for the phenomena we experience. Perhaps these characters you are describing are an extreme example of this, in that these normal, and at their root survivalist behaviors, they have turned into an overt system of value or belief or labor, and are living their lives ritualistically because of it, ensnaring others alongside them. The surrealistic flavor is not something that I plan, but juxtaposition and absurdity are for me, a kind of normal.
Always an observer in my own family, I’ve always had the experience of not understanding causal relationships between observed events or behaviors in others, and wanting to. Even though there is an impenetrableness to understanding and knowing why people behave as they do, there is also the freeing, openness of multiple possible meanings. I hope these characters are both absurd and unnerving in their sincerity, and their authority. Perhaps ideally, just by experiencing the films and being lulled by them, viewers can sit in an surprising place of empathy for these characters, and the embrace the questions and ambiguity of their situations.
MW: How do you think about the relationship between characters in your different films? Are they part of a kind of extended strange family?
MB: I don’t think of the characters in my separate films as sharing territories, or that they know each other. But they do all occupy a kind of archetypal fantasy realm where I feel they might live in bubbles adjacent to each other, perhaps one lives up the river from another, but in another country, or 100 years after. There is the fact that I cherish the fact that the objects in my films cross over to the worlds of the other films. For me this is a practical production decision (I keep all my props and costumes, have a small, Chicago apartment basement storage and so recycle), but it’s also an extension of all this speculative fictionâ€¦the idea that many of thecharacters in my films (especially Songs from the Shed, Shoals, and Waking Things), are all scavengers of sorts, creating their own meaning (which asks to be deciphered or observed) from rituals based on the materials they have, and also via their bodies, and in moments, language or song. The objects are worn and carry as much history and potential narrative as these gestural bodies; materials and characters may have equal ‘value’ in that way, though I’d have to think more about that…
MW: But then when I write that I wonder, are these characters in your films even full character studies? In both Nanty and Shoals, the characters are left undeveloped and mysterious, almost archetypal on purpose. What kinds of figures are they to you? What is revealed and hidden about them in your films?
MB: Even though I come out of a literature and theatre background, in my filmmaking I’m pretty committed to utilizing what to me are uniquely cinematic aesthetic tools that are centered around observation. So for me that’s movement, light, sound, texture, scale, duration, etc. I am very interested framing a character in terms of behavior that suggests but does not explain inner life of motivation, desire, etc. Perhaps on a way it is something like portraiture, or creating a kind of attention in the viewer to physical details, energies, and action in figures. . .language of course interests me too, but primarily in the way that its performative and coded also. I want to play with narrative expectations and actual cognitive narrativizing that we do all the time, in movies, and in life, as a way of ordering or making sense of things. This is one of the reasons I also rarely move the camera, and embrace the fragmentation of montage, a static frame, and a detailed soundtrack; I am hoping to slow folks down a bit, and in a way introduce a way of seeing, hearing, experiencing, and gathering of information that is a kind of adding up of parts, that also includes sitting with ambiguity and becoming an ‘active viewer’ while also being absorbed into the world/window of the film. This tension is a kind of experiential realism for me.
MW: One quote I loved from Shoals was when Chris [Sullivan]/the cult leader/doctor/teacher asks one of the girls to place a group of random objects into intuitive groupings. He asks her to find the “binder”– “an associative connection that brings them form and work, maybe.” It strikes me that this could be a way of thinking about your films. What do you see as the binders that connect the scenes and movements of individual films together?
MB: That’s interesting. Yes, for the films I think binders could be the these surrogate families or self-made communities and their culture-making which borders on religion, and then the situations in the films themselves, which play on our cognitive need for causal order and meaning-making. In some ways this is something that Chris’s cult leader character is providing, although obliquely and absurdly. In this scene, for this lesson or indoctrination to occur, he’s asking Kelly’s (Emily’s character) to create her own meaning, a kind of teaching on the one hand and a sort of illusion of her using her own choice freely. This intersection of Catholicism, grammar school, psychological testing, and Eastern philosophies were all the elements I wanted his character to be combining. An attempt at utopia buoyed up by language that suggests knowledge or expertise, but has a lot of holes in it.
MW: I want to ask about atmosphere and place. In other interviews, you’ve talked about growing up in a sort of gothic southern atmosphere– are you recreating particular geographical or temporal atmospheres?
MB: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia (a place obsessed with its history) and Asheville, North Carolina, where the mountains and rain are lush in the Summer and chilling and blue-grey in the Winter. That part of Appalachia is shadowy and flinty and earthy and grubby and full of life and perseverance. I love it but it can be quite scary.
This gets back to your earlier question. In the realm of fully-developed characters or archetypes, I may lean toward the latter because I am pretty fascinated with stories of self-identity based on history. Many times in America, in a family, that’s a history of immigration, or someone being defined by their job, where they lived, or a particular personality trait. People get mythologized so quickly and easily and stories about family are stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who we want to be, should be, or don’t want to be. It seems particularly complicated in the US because while we are so fixated on making our own way, and re-making ourselves all the time, we still define our selves in relation to these stories of our own history in one way or another. There are stories in my own family that I have always loved hearing or finding out about that I entertain as defining me in one way or another. You can call it cultural heritage, or think of it psychologically, or based on gender roles, class, but there’s an anthropology to a family and the culture that gets created in it by ritual behavior and the stories it authors about itself. I think all the films I’ve been making lately are exploring these ideas.
MW: Regarding the relationships between these films, you said something really intriguing to me at the Hairpin center about Nanty that I wanted to ask more about in starting. If I remember correctly, you were saying that you pictured it being part of an epic modular project pieced together with grants you get here and there. I was impressed by this for a few reasons: first, that you are so scrappy about using the ad hoc way that artists are funded (and, though I don’t know as much as I should about it, probably video artists in particular) to your advantage, and, second, that you can work this way and think this far out in terms of discrete but interlocking projects. How far off am I on this idea of yours? Can you talk more about your plans for future work and the kind of different pieces you would imagine making/how they might relate?
MB: I am currently working on a project called Summerstock, which I imagine as a long-form, film work that will evolve and branch out with each iteration over the next few years. Initially, I had conceived of the project simply as a feature film (typically 70-90minutes), but my experiences in making installations in the last several years, and the current transitional state of independent feature filmmaking, have lead me to embrace what ultimately is a more exciting structure — a constellation, a web of interconnected nodal sections. My hope is that the overall long form will change as I continue each stand-alone piece, which is also connected to the others in terms of character, place, materials, or any other points of relationship I’ll be exploring. The dream here is that I can find funding or shoe-string methods to work as I keep making each piece, and that the venues and environments for exhibition or screening will also add an ephemeral and experiential quality to those pieces as well. The first part I made and exhibited in May as part of the Presence of Absence show, and think of like an Introit. It’s a 10minute film installation Nanty, which introduces a key figure in the project, and hints at her situation. The next part of this project will premiere in Chicago in a solo exhibition at Iceberg Projects on Nov. 3, and run through December.
Thematically, the next part of SUMMERSTOCK will be both a film and an installationâ€¦ It will offer a tension of inner and outer landscapes, the use of the voice to reveal and conceal, and it’ll be set in a familiar but unknown place — a hybrid of specificities of place and people. Regionalism is a fantasy, and I think travels well. I am excited to stage this piece site-specifically at Iceberg, it’s such an elegant and intimate space.
On Sunday I went to Doc Films to check out Kelly Reichardtâ€™s (“Old Joy”, “River of Grass”) latest film â€œWendy and Lucyâ€. The film is only 120 minutes. In that time we wander through a Pacific Northwest town as Wendy (Michelle Williams) attempts to find her dog, fix her car, and continue her way to Alaska. I went into the film thinking of it as a classic road trip movie. When I left I felt like the film was much more about the struggles that people face when interacting with strangers.
Both the film and Williams have received a lot of critical acclaim. I found it easy to believe the situations that Wendy faced and the amount of strength the character had to gather in order to make it through the 3 days that we see. I also liked the ambiguity of the previous circumstances that led her to where she is. As a character Wendy is rather solemn, for obvious reasons, while Lucy, her golden dog with floppy ears, appears to be one of the few things that actually holds her together.
The plot is a little sparse which I think gives Williams the opportunity to shine. One of the more pivotal scenes in the film is when a friendly security guard hands Wendy a wad of money and insists that she takes it. Once he leaves, its hard not to feel the devastating blow that what had looked like a lot of money was actually only $7.
A. O. Scott summed up the poignancy of the film, â€œBut underneath this plain narrative surface â€” or rather, resting on it the way a smooth stone rests in your palm â€” is a lucid and melancholy inquiry into the current state of American society. Much as â€œOld Joyâ€ turned a simple encounter between two longtime friends into a meditation on manhood and responsibility at a time of war and political confusion, so does â€œWendy and Lucyâ€ find, in one womanâ€™s partly self-created hard luck, an intimation of more widespread hard times ahead.â€
Wendy and Lucy is available today, May 5th on dvd.