Rare Atmospheres: An Interview with Michael Robinson

March 6, 2012 · Print This Article

It is not uncommon to find oneself dreaming of Michael Robinson‘s films weeks after having watched them. By that I mean it happened to me once. Specifically, it happened to one of us once. I (the other one) have not had that dream, but have had the opposite reaction. I felt I was dreaming amid some of Robinson’s films. The oneiric tradition within the cinema is as long and storied as it is obvious to most anyone who has spent time in “the biggest, darkest, loudest theater possible.” So we won’t go too far into it but to say that his works in film and video are highly atmospheric.

Sliding easily between original and wide ranging found footage, they are simultaneously direct in their concerns and beguiling in their approach. Much has been made of his ability to use arch kitsch (Full House, Little House on the Prairie) in ways that are both evocative and humorous. And while the use of mass media is considered in its irony, it doesn’t feel cheap.

Adroitly harnessing the techniques of past avant-garde film, Robinson adapts them to fit shifts in contemporary culture, taking the infant (and often infantile) form of YouTube mashups towards greater and stranger heights. And while the films are highly atmospheric and make terrific use of the form’s unique vocabularies, they each have specific trajectories. They are conceptual, with a small c and formal with a small f, allowing for great flexibility.

Originally from Upstate New York, Michael holds a BFA from Ithaca College, a MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago and was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema at Binghamton University. His work has shown in many prominent festivals and beginning tomorrow his films will be featured as part of the Whitney Biennial for the following four days, culminating with a conversation between Robinson and experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh.
(Note: this interview was co-conducted by Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa)

You use both found and original footage. Can you talk about what changes and what remains the same when using the different methods for gathering images? For example, the difference between the production of If There Be Thorns, which is made of 16mm film you shot yourself, and These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us, which is all found footage.

When I’m working with my own footage, it takes me a lot longer to detach from the material, and know what to ditch.  With found materials, I’m already approaching them with enough distance to know more quickly whether or not they will work.  But the flipside is that I tend to not mangle or alter my own footage very much, so the picture editing process is usually more straightforward for the works I shoot myself.  Part of this is also about setting boundaries – with a work like If There Be Thorns, I shot footage in a few different places over the course of a year, and then made the best of what I had.  With These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us – there was a lot of specific types of material I wanted to find (CGI pyramids, mummies, ice dancers) and there seemed no reason to stop until I found it all.  So the gathering process was also part of the editing process.

Can you describe your editing process? How does using Final Cut Pro (if that is actually what you use) influence your aesthetic? How do you navigate the abundance of options and effects to find the one which works?

The process is a little different for each piece, but generally it involves a ton of trial and error, figuring things out in small sections.  In regards to Final Cut, I don’t actually use many of the pre-set filters, but tend to get the results I want through layering (copy and pasting the same shot on top of itself, methodically offsetting each one, and playing with the compositing).  I learned 16mm film editing in college, and taught myself Final Cut afterwards, so I veer towards those aspects of digital editing which are meant to replicate a more visual, analogue experience.

Many of the effects that you employ (flickering or strobe-like editing, solarizing or inverting colors, multiple superimposed images) are stalwarts of avant-garde film, yet your use of these effects feels extremely unique. How do you see your use of such techniques in relationship to their use in the past? Are there art movements from the past that you feel influence your practice, or whom you feel your work responds to?

I suppose I like everything I’m doing to feel a bit transparent (flicker feels like flicker, slow motion feels like slow motion) and part of that transparency involves nodding to the traditions of film and video art, while hopefully steering things elsewhere.  Within lot of the more famous uses of flicker – or any formal technique for that matter – the effect was explored as an entity unto itself, deployed through a very specific, or mathematical structure.  So while Tony Conrad’s The Flicker or Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, are psychologically very rich and in no way purely formal films, the technique itself is at the core of these works.  My films use effects and techniques as emotional cues, or as narrative elements in and of themselves, guiding and contributing to the atmosphere or thrust of a piece without actually being the heart of it.

You mention an interest in the narrative aspects of video games (in particular of the Super Nintendo generation). I found this instructive as a potential entry into what elements of narrative (might) exist in your work. The hazy, indefinite but cyclical nature of “story” seems related. Can you talk a bit about both the influence a generation of games had on your practice and also how you conceive of narrativity within your work?

It’s all about what we allow ourselves project emotion and meaning onto, whether that’s pushing a stone in the right direction to unlock a door in a Zelda game, or the exchange of keys, knives and doppelgangers in Meshes of the Afternoon.  I’m not interested in the “save the princess/universe” narrative of games, but rather the attaching of logic and motivation to completely abstract situations.  So guiding characters through video games is in a sense not unlike navigating a complex film.  All of my pieces follow a narrative arc of one form or another, with establishment, rising action, climax, etc.  I would be completely lost without that arc.

Can you talk about your use of popular music? Do you see an analog between instrumental karaoke versions of songs and heavily processed visual media? There was a period of time in avant-garde cinema during which popular music was eschewed, but that seems finished. Young(er) artists often feel more adroit at using elements of popular culture in ways that are unironic without being saccharine or humorless. They–you–are able to harness the power of these cultural artifacts without ceding control to them.

Pop music, like most television, is a really strange thing when you take a step back and think about what it is, and how it’s working – mechanically, commercially, and emotionally.  Despite that, there is an undeniable power to things like melody and refrain, particularly when they manage to carry some lasting cultural influence or imprint.  I see karaoke as a very emotional, sometimes spiritual exercise – wherein the Word is recited, is often known by heart, and summons a certain amount of heartfelt projection.  In using instrumental tracks in my films, I like the idea that some audience members will be forced to sing along in their heads, or at least have some kind of sense memory triggered.

There’s a phrase that I remember being attributed to Guy Maddin on the poster for Jim Finn’s Interkosmos which has always stuck with me: so full of rare atmospheres. I’ve thought of that phrase often while watching your films. More than conveying single ideas or attacking a problem, the works are very atmospheric. Can you discuss your process of making? Do notes for films come from trying to achieve a certain feeling? From having an amount of footage that you’re trying to unite?

I usually know what I want a given film to feel like, in terms of atmosphere, before I know what it will look or sound like.  So the gathering and editing processes then become about trying to figure out how to convey that feeling.  The sound design is really the most important part of this, and the most finicky, in that things don’t really work until they’re just right.  I do take a lot of notes and make a lot of lists, relating to specific shots or edits, and attempting to get my head around broader ideas.

Switching gears slightly, let’s discuss distribution. Your films are available to be watched, in their entirety, on your website and on vimeo. They’re also distributed by VDB, have screened widely at festivals and, now, will be included in the Whitney Biennial. Did you ever have a question about having the work online? Do you conceive of your website/the web broadly as a screening space as opposed to simply a portfolio? Do you have an interest in making videos for gallery environments? Do you have an ideal viewing environment in mind when creating your work?

I hesitated to put my work online for a while, but then realized I was happily watching other artists’ work online, and was taking the online viewing experience with the necessary grain of salt.  I trust that contemporary viewers of all kinds are doing the same, and that if someone is interested enough in something online, they will want to see it out in the world too.  And if not, then they would otherwise never see it, so they might as well see it online.  This is not the case for all kinds of cinema, but I think my films do hold up reasonably well online.  I have shown my work installed in a black-box gallery mode a few times, and I am interested in exploring that more, because when it’s done well I think it can bridge the disconnect between film and art audiences.  But still, the ideal environment to see my work is the biggest, darkest, loudest theater possible (preferably sold out).

Can you talk about your approaches as a professor? Has teaching altered the way you think about your own work, the history of cinema or, potentially, its futures?

My approach is really just to expose students to the things I love, and to the histories that have been important to me, and hope that they might find inspiration there too.  There is no one history of cinema, or of experimental cinema, so every artist connects the dots in their own way.  In connecting my dots for the purposes of teaching, I’ve gotten a lot closer to the work of certain artists, such as Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, who I’ve admired for a long time, but appreciate more and more with every viewing.  But I wouldn’t say that teaching has altered my work, or my overall views on cinema.

What are your artistic roots? Did you always know you wanted to make films? Were you in ska bands? Were you in ski bands? Did you study painting or make plays?

As a kid, I loved to draw and paint, and gravitated towards photography and music as a teenager.  I was never in a proper band, but did play drums, and once recorded a pretty great cover version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” with two high school friends.  Around that time I also went to a very lovey-dovey Catholic summer camp, where all the campers were frequently made to hold hands in circles and sing sad pop songs (Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, etc.), which obviously had a lasting effect on me.  I went to college thinking I would concentrate on photography, or maybe film editing, but was pretty quickly seduced by experimental cinema.  I didn’t see it coming, but it was a perfect catchall for my various impulses.

This interview was co-conducted by Jesse Malmed and Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa, an artist, theorist, and independent curator based out of Brooklyn, New York.




Radical Lights

February 7, 2012 · Print This Article

I lived in San Francisco once. It sometimes feels distant now because I have even lived another place between there and here. San Francisco occupies an interesting place in the American imagination. Even though high rents and a sort of institutionalized and self-aware weirdness pervade much of the city, it is still, in fact, filled with oddballs, Peter Pans and visionaries. Its role in American culture is as a provocateur, a laboratory and a refuge. I think this is true and the city certainly thinks it’s true.

It was stirring, then, to see so much of San Francisco last week at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema screening of Stories Untold, one of over 20 different programs of (mostly) shorts under the umbrella of the Radical Light project. The project, whose full name is Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, encompasses a large, brimming book, those 20-some programs of experimental media and a gallery exhibition at the Berkeley Museum of Art. The monumental exhibition was facilitated by curators/editors/programmers Steve Anker (now the Dean of the School of Film/Video at California Institute of the Arts, once of the San Francisco Cinematheque), Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid (Film and Video Curators at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive,). Over the course of a decade, the three scholars and exhibitors wove together a history of alternative and experimental media notable for the quality, diversity and energy of the work.

The book teems with interesting essays, artist pages, personal reflections and histories and, ecstatically, loads of ephemera from various screenings. Cinema is an event and even when large institutions are involved (SFMOMA, SFAI, KQED and BAM/PFA all having played interesting roles in the development of Bay Area media), the works and culture in Radical Light’s purview are scrappy, marginal and rule-defying. Flyers from shows, dispatches from seminal organizations and photographs enliven the text and remind young guns that the culture has always been suffused with polymaths—artists as curators as critics as janitors as flyer-makers as audiences as artists—and that making a show is as simple and as complex as making a show.

On Thursday February 16th, the excellent Conversations at the Edge series at the Gene Siskel Film Center brings Steve Anker and the New Preservation/New Prints program. The program features works from 1906 to 1984. A number of these films and some of their makers—for me, at least—fall under the “seen about but haven’t seen” category. Making this an even bigger treat is that these films have been well preserved and new prints have been struck. For all the great benefits of increased online visibility of canonical (and forgotten) experimental film history, the joy of seeing these works in a proper cinematic context and in their correct format is immense. You can watch Oh, Dem Watermelons by the recently deceased Robert Nelson below, but you’re better served just tasting it here and letting your interest be sated by real thing.

One week later, CATE brings us George Kuchar: HotSpell. I love Kuchar’s work, especially the video diaries he began to make in the 1980s. Ed Halter wrote this lovely piece on Kuchar for Artforum and I think it perfectly sums up what makes his work so endlessly watchable. The work is funny, smart and messy. It’s about cinematic representation and camp and biography and the weather while still mostly being about that moment. Halter nails it nicely: “cinema à la Kuchar pivoted on the dialectic between overblown fantasy and schlumpy reality, the films always working double time as documentaries of their own making.”

Then, on Friday the 24th, Chicago Filmmakers hosts Radical Light’s Found Footage Films program. The Bay Area has had a long entanglement with collage and appropriative filmmaking. This program is of particular interest to me now because of the (seeming,) (current,) wholesale mainstream embrace of borrowed images. The ease of digital editing and prevalence of moving image media has enabled entire new folk arts of super-cuts, stretched videos and detourned mass media. Bring a teenage friend who’s never heard of Craig Baldwin or who can’t imagine what a debate about sampling would even be and see if the works’ radical histories can still be felt.

(Thad Povey‘s Thine Inward-Looking Eyes)

I had the privilege of helping bring some of Radical Light to Portland last year and with it Steve Seid. Among the great joys were meeting Loren Sears (the book is almost worth its price just for the picture of him from Bolinas in 1973 sitting cross-legged in his Video Van, a mobile video editing and processing station replete with patterned rugs and a lingering hippie/techno-utopian/media shaman vibe that feels quintessentially Bay Arean), having the chance to learn even more secrets than were divulged in the book and, if it isn’t too horn-tooting to admit, to participate in Seid’s reading by doing a performative reading as Kuchar, one of the few impressions I can do. Kuchar’s presence was all over last week’s screening and remains one of the many vital personalities Radical Light teases into the large, varied, tangential and fascinating tape-stry of a half century of inventive cinema.




A Few Instructive Interviews

January 3, 2012 · Print This Article

Bad at Sports first came on my reader radar for the interviews. Or, more precisely, the conversations. Beyond the accessibility of the medium, podcasting’s greatest contribution to broadcasting is the reintroduction of elastic time. Without the constraints of advertising and station breaks and schedules and all that, a program can last as long as it needs to. At least that’s the idea. I’ve found the long, wide-ranging interviews heard on this podcast and in others to be enormously instructive in thinking about the interview, in how conversational it can be and in what types of questions or prompts are most productive in elucidating the practices and personalities of those involved.

My feeling at this point is that a great deal of my output here at Bad at Sports will be interviews with artists working with moving images and in time-based media. In thinking through how I want these to function in the coming year, I’ve assembled a few smart, funny, strange or otherwise interesting interviews I’ve seen or heard in the last little while that have opened up the form to me a bit.

Felix Bernstein, a precocious 17 at the time of the interview, spoke with the late George Kuchar in 2010. I’ve experienced a lot of interviews with George and he’s always funny and sharp and excellently dodges whatever questions might seek to polish the stained, patinated scum skin of his cinematic cesspool. I am typically simultaneously in love with his responses and estranged by how they’re evoked. His best interviews were always those he performed on and by himself in his diary and weather films. Felix, though seems a nice foil for his quasi-serious, arch antics of a reclining George. This kid does well and it’s a nice glimpse into this period of his life.

Screening Room was a Boston television program that ran through much of the 1970s. Its host, Robert Gardner, is a filmmaker, visual anthropologist and academic who served as Director of Harvard’s Film Study Center for 40 years. The show featured long-form interviews with critical filmmakers of the period and is still a wonderful resource for learning about these makers and getting to know the texture of their personalities. Here is a short portion from his interview with Bruce Baillie. Or, at least, it’s something like that. The film shown is also quite extraordinary.

I think Charles Bernstein (no relation, at least to the best of my knowledge, to Felix) is simply terrific. I’ve long admired his poetry and his critical work in poetics is astounding both for its breadth and its depth. He’s a great critic in part because of how well he listens. He’s also very generous and enormously funny. As an interviewer, here are three examples of what he does well. First, from a series of commercials in the late-90s in which Jon Lovitz played the author of the Yellow Pages. I vaguely remembered these from when they initially aired but have gone back and enjoyed them tremendously. In this long cut, Bernstein’s mental agility and openness to the expansive nature of poetics enables the joke to take on a much grander scale. If only Lovitz could keep up.

Here, Bernstein interviews pioneering underground filmmaker Ken Jacobs on his excellent Close Listening radio show. My favorite moment is at around 25:40, when the weight of Jacobs’ Marxian humanism and empath(et)ic anxiety is revealed.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

 

Finally, here is Bernstein in the video-maker role, performing seasick camera moves and asking the amazing Caroline Bergvall language questions. A button film, but a wormhole into longer discussions.

This is a weird one. Filmmaker and curator Tyrone Davies is on the news in Missouri, chatting up his traveling film festival and then…

This video has been seen almost two million times. Davies was able to parlay his infamy into a spot on the tosh.0 show on Comedy Central. Beyond all this, of course, Davies is a real artist and one who uses the medium of television in interesting and inventive ways. The way internet video and video commingle, antagonize and sometimes exist as one is the subject for a whole other post, but this is one in a long queue ripe for examination. Or at least “Like”ing.

Finally, here’s an interview of sorts with the great filmmaker, ethnomusicologist and lifer Harry Smith. This is from late in Smith’s life, but his ebullience, defiance and wit are still ferocious.

For whatever it’s worth, I cut this post in more than half, so let’s just call this Part One.




INTERVIEW WITH JACQUELINE GOSS

November 15, 2011 · Print This Article

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.




Interview with Empty Quarter’s Pam Minty and Alain LeTourneau

November 1, 2011 · Print This Article

Portland filmmakers, educators, programmers and film advocates Alain LeTourneau and Pam Minty are in the midst of a Midwest and east coast tour with their avant-doc Empty Quarter. The work is a decade in the making but even beyond that knowledge there is something very large feeling about it. Perhaps this weight is due to the scope of its subject: the three southeastern counties of Oregon (Lake, Harney and Malheur), its wide-ranging citizenry and their activities both quotidian and transformative. I imagine the openness with which a viewer can interact with the piece, though, has more to do with how large and multivalent it feels.

Empty Quarter is formally divergent from conventional documentaries in several obvious ways: its format—from camera to projector—is luminous black-and-white 16 millimeter film; the scenes are composed of lengthy, single shots for which the camera is fixed; the subjects—landscapes and the workers, families and machinery that people them—exist without a narrator’s context, without an onslaught of subtitular text; during those intervening interview portions where direct human voices are heard the screen is completely black (save for those occasional scratches or imperfections the film print will accrue as it makes its way through projectors across the country). It is, as such, in the tradition of other makers who take as their subject the real world. As a documentary, its polemic is apolitical (so far as parties are concerned), but deeply humanistic and with a strong feeling for the strange, beautiful landscape and the industries, families and outside communities with which they function.

Because the film is so open in its presentation, questions relating to urban and rural divides, race and ethnicity within agricultural sector and regions, land stewardship and labor are all invoked. While Pam and Alain were in Chicago screening the film (one hopes they’ll find time for us again on their spring tour of the film), we were able to speak at length about the decade long process of its making, the bold formal elements of the work and the nature of their collaboration.

It seems silly, but sometimes the easiest way to digest works that are formally inventive or distinct is to first think about those differences as an entry into the work. Empty Quarter is a documentary, but will never be described as such without a tag like experimental or essayistic or landscape or avant before it.

Alain LeTourneau: Empty Quarter attempts to create a cinematic experience closer to lived experience. That is, raw and undigested. The viewer would move through and make meaning of the spaces and activities presented. We wanted the relationship to the audience to remain open, allowing the audience to participate on some level. If we had presented a series of opinions or arguments, the viewer would be left in a position of agreeing or disagreeing with the information presented. As a portrait of a place, Empty Quarter is a series of recorded observations. The viewer can enter in to and inhabit the shots/scenes taking away a set of personal reactions, which can then be shared with other audience members, friends and perhaps family. The cinematic experience is intended to extend or ripple out into people’s lives, becoming part of public life.

One of the most striking (and I think best) choices you made in this film is the use of black during the interview segments. 

Pam Minty:  While all image-based shots are set to sync sound, audio interviews with residents from the area are set to black screen.  Our intention in this approach is to give the audience the space to listen in a focused way not competing with the function of visual observation. Many of the issues discussed were repeated across several interviews, so it seemed more appropriate to allow unmitigated sound to convey these shared experiences, opinions and concerns. To some extent, the use of long visual takes informed the choice to give equal or similar weight to collected audio recordings. There was a decision in post-production to mix sync voices more prominently in an attempt to replicate being in the environment and give the audience the opportunity to experience what grabbed our attention most.

Though it seems to hard to imagine this film functioning otherwise the use of black & white seems to work on a number of levels here. It does something to heighten the notion of the work as intentionally produced (as art, as artifice), which seems counter to so much of how most documentaries are made, but it also seems to reinforce the work’s place in a historical trajectory.

AL: 16mm black and white can blur the distinction between seasons, times of day, and tends to focus one’s attention on the activity or landscape being framed, without presenting itself as “reality”. The black and white images are presented as a document or observed record. The texture or grain is also quite wonderful, the way it creates shimmering, almost impressionistic images, unresolved and lower in quality than color.

The whole film is filled with beautiful, evocative images. But without giving too much away, I feel like the final shot (above) is so elegant, so well paced and so well constructed that both times I’ve seen the work someone from the audience has asked whether or not it was choreographed. In itself, it’s an interesting question because the question is not whether the drivers of the farm equipment were directed, but choreographed, but also seems a good jumping off point to ask about how much was done to “direct” the participants in the film.

AL: The final shot in Empty Quarter came out of our experience of observing various patterns that occur in the process or routine of work, whether manual or machine labor. The camera was positioned to present a kind of symmetry with movement in the image, and to unfold in a very subtle way.

PM: We’ve found that audiences have used those terms differently to respond to different images. When machines appear to be moving in a planned way, we’re asked about whether we choreographed the scene. Conversely, when people enter a shot, perform an activity, and (in general) leave the frame, people tend to use the term “direction” in how they phrase the question. Ironically, the most choreographed looking scene, the closing shot, was one in which we had the least ability to manipulate how the corn harvest activity unfolded. Alain’s intuition about when to begin filming in relation to how much film was in the magazine for the tilling of the last row of corn, was critical. Also, his choice to frame the shot as he did lent to the power of that shot. Had he centered the final row tilled, the trucks would not have been symmetrical as they left the frame left and right, and it wouldn’t have happened simultaneously. In a post-film Q&A, he’ll call it dumb luck, but as a witness to that moment, it really comes across as good decision making, being aware of the frame, and keen observation about how the process unfolds.

There’s always something inherently quixotic to the project of documentary. The idea of representing another’s lived experience is always an impossible challenge, but the idea of representing such a gigantic amount of space and the wide-ranging experiences of those who live and work there is even more vast. There are always those in the moving image world who argue for a utopian concept of total representation, of a 360-degree, interactive cinema, and compared to these, the thoughtfully-constructed, single-take scenes of a place seem to argue towards the specificity of your framing and the intent inherent to leaving so much out of the frame.

AL: Total or complete representation sounds like an impossible project. Additional funding would have allowed the film to be longer, maybe three hours, but whether the film would have benefited from this additional material is hard to say. I think we would have enjoyed the opportunity to continue recording and documenting the work, recreational activities and landscape of the area, but even given more material and longer run time, I think it would be difficult to say that we could provide an exhaustive view of the region. We certainly could have shined light on more of what happens in the area. For example, we had an offer to record inside a one-room schoolhouse in a remote part of Lake County, but the completion schedule and our budget would not allow us to incorporate this into the film.

There are a lot of political, social and ecological issues that are hinted at in the film. Compared to most films, or even to most conversations, the film feels balanced (not simply right-and-left, but front-and-behind, top-and-bottom). What lead you to give this film this seemingly non-political vantage?

AL: While Empty Quarter is not overtly political, I would not say it’s non-political or does not on some level engage political questions. The film certainly does not provide any kind of dramatic conflict that is eventually resolved or persuasive argument. In acknowledging our distance from the region and our urban detachment from rural lifestyles, our approach was more of simple observation, which seemed of greater value than a more traditional approach.  Looking at—and listening to—the region in an effort to provide a means of thinking about its place in the social and economic fabric of American culture­ was a critical aspect of our interest in the project.

The same people that have told me the idea behind making a film is to a tell a story also told me that film is the most collaborative of art forms. This concept is obviously based on a large studio system in which hundreds of people do their parts to manifest the vision of a director. The history of avant-garde film, however, takes a central (if sometimes only implicitly or out of necessity) interest in the single artist, the lone maker. Somewhere between these poles lies your own dynamic. Can you describe the process of working as a couple?  How do you conceive of our collaboration?

PM: Our earliest experience as collaborators in the production of Empty Quarter was simultaneous to beginning our work co-programming an experimental film series now operating under the name 40 Frames. In 2000, we moved into a warehouse space that could accommodate screenings as well as house our film production facility. As we wound down the production process and moved into post, we transitioned out of programming into the advocacy role we perform now with 16mm Directory, which is the primary activity of 40 Frames. We’re both working on independent films now as we distribute Empty Quarter. Once these projects are complete, we plan to collaborate on a second film on the subject of work.

Jesse Malmed is an artist and curator. He is brand new to Chicago and Bad at Sports. His work can be seen at www.jessemalmed.net.