Blogs Crosscuts

The Contemporary Scholar, Part One: Two Desks and Multiple Definitions

In the first of a series of contributions to the Crosscuts blog, the Walker’s inaugural Bentson Film Scholar, Isla Leaver-Yap, reflects upon a key term in her job title: the scholar, and how the definition informs her own production. “To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. […]

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John Baldessari, The Meaning of Various News Photos to Ed Henderson, 1973     Photo courtesy Video Data Bank

In the first of a series of contributions to the Crosscuts blog, the Walker’s inaugural Bentson Film Scholar, Isla Leaver-Yap, reflects upon a key term in her job title: the scholar, and how the definition informs her own production.

“To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angels or virtue – who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with the exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.”

And so begins the opening lines of Canadian poet, Greek classicist, and scholar Anne Carson in her short text “The Life of Towns.” I hesitate in how I should describe this text to you: should these opening lines be described as a short essayistic poem or a poetic essay? As readers, and particularly readers of Carson’s writing, the division between the scholarly essay and the poetic form is not always identifiable. Nonfiction writing by authors such as John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Nan Shepherd, and Robert McFarlane similarly attest to the porosity of scholarship and poetry, where moments of intense metaphor, narrative, imagistic writing, might lead us to rethink systems. And, by equal turns, close analytical writing adjacent to moments of poetic license might allow us “to see the lines that are there,” in Carson’s words.

In a rare early interview, Carson admitted to having two desks in her house: one for writing poetry, one for writing scholarship. The division was clearly personally significant, even if it isn’t always so clear (or crucial, even) to the reader. But like the clarity of two desks, the division between art and scholarship tends to be sharp. To put it bluntly: in place of poetic text, there is the art object. And so, as a term, scholarship remains fairly distinct as the analytical or systematic “reading” of the art object. Here is the object; there is the text about the object.

While it’s safe to say that the definition of the art object cannot be clarified here (nor should it), I want to identify what we might mean by this other, seemingly more stable term “scholarship.” The word unsurprisingly comes from the Greek σχολαστικός, which can be translated as “that which belongs to the school.” I find the Greek root term especially interesting because the difference between the school, the schoolmen, and the school pupils in this scenario is not entirely clear. In any case, it identifies a core principle of learning, though who is learning, who is learned, and what is learned is nebulous. Learning, then, is taking place.

The dissemination of Greek learning was via the format of “scholarly instruction.” This was a three-step process. The first part, called lectio, comprised a reading of a text; the second, meditatio, was a reflection upon said text; and finally the third, quaestiones, was the group’s responses to the text. This structure is essentially unchanged in its current form of the public lecture, the artist’s talk, or a filmmaker’s question-and-answer format that often follows a screening of the work where the filmmaker is present in the audience. The German word for “scholarship” is Wissenschaft and is a bit more specific than the Greek in that it can be translated literally as “knowledge.” More specific still, the German Forscher is a “research scholar.” But in its current English use, “scholarship” can be defined as the systematic pursuit of knowledge and learning.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s landmark 1837 speech “The American Scholar” is a key text in identifying the characteristics of modern scholarship — crucial, in fact, for extending the analytical role to one of invention. “There is,” Emerson declares, “creative reading as well as creative writing.” His personal definition of scholarship broadens the purely systematic aspects of the scholar’s dependencies on primary texts and objects, into one of active participation, original production, and influence. Indeed, “The American Scholar” might allow us to arrive at definitions for the contemporary scholar: an individual who maps and engages with the migration of information and art; who is attentive to the contexts in which art occurs, and the unique temporal pressures that affects such the production of culture. As for my own definition, I would also fold in the enterprises of the editor, curator, and publisher. These are figures that each provides intermediary roles between information and knowledge, artist and audience.

The shifting definition of what scholarship is and what it might entail presents a unique set of interests in relation to the contemporary scholar’s approach to artists’ moving image – the position in which I now find myself (“film scholar” encapsulates a myriad of mediums: video, celluloid, installation, monitor and projection, to name only the most basic of distinctions). The key, then, is to admit that the contemporary scholar is one who endeavors to show facts amidst appearances by taking a position, while also holding on to the paradox that any position must be constantly revised in order to be accurate and responsive to the work, text, film or subject at hand. This is a peculiar period for contemporary scholarship; we live in an era that is both one of instant historicization and constant revision. Scholarship must reflect this. The formal distinctions between the desk of art and the desk of scholarship are useful in setting out starting positions, but one must admit that sometimes, maybe now more than ever, it’s useful to push the desks together.

“The Contemporary Scholar, Part One: Part 2: The Filmic Essay” will be posted in a fortnight.

Smuggling Perspectives, Morocco’s Mule Ladies

On Monday’s front page of The New York Times is a still from video journalist Almudena Toral’s Morocco’s Mule Ladies. The film, just shy of six minutes long (which you can watch on the Times website), documents the way women in Morocco make their living smuggling Spanish goods from Melilla. This comes only four days […]

Still from Yto Barrada’s The Smuggler (2006)

On Monday’s front page of The New York Times is a still from video journalist Almudena Toral’s Morocco’s Mule Ladies. The film, just shy of six minutes long (which you can watch on the Times website), documents the way women in Morocco make their living smuggling Spanish goods from Melilla. This comes only four days after Yto Barrada’s visit to the Walker, during which she screened her short silent film called The Smuggler (2006) as part of the Expanding the Frame series. The film shows one of these “mule ladies” demonstrating how she belts on blankets and fabrics to her person. Under the circumstances, The Smuggler becomes a peculiar case study for Morocco’s Mule Ladies.

In Barrada’s film, the woman speaks casually to the camera standing before a black backdrop – shot inside the Cinema Rif during its renovation. Layered on a chair beside her are blankets which she comically fastens to her body. Her granddaughter appears on screen twice to help, smiling at the camera as her grandmother bounces up and down, trying to jostle the load into place. In eleven minutes she dons and removes the blankets.

Striking a deep contrast to Barrada’s film is Toral’s Mule Ladies, which not only documents what it’s like to be at the border crossing between Morocco and Melilla, but how the atmosphere there has become violent in recent months. There are people running, screaming, and even bleeding on camera.

Eight years separate the making of these films, and it’s obvious that the conditions of smuggling jobs have worsened in that time, but the disparity between these two elucidations is still baffling. Seeing these films side by side leads one to question the polar reactions they incite. Despite their differences though, the films do share in common — notwithstanding degrees of manipulation — a desire to show truth.

At first glance, Barrada’s film seems to have been intended as an objective observation of a woman and her life, but by dodging every shred of environment from the image, Barrada makes a comedy of her protagonist’s story. Meanwhile, with precise editing, an emotional score and journalistic shots from the hip, Toral manages to make a compellingly sympathetic case for women whose smuggling has become a primary means of survival. In the end, it’s their means of manipulation that subvert their meaning.

Yet, there is some beauty in how, rather than contradicting each other, these two films can suppose emotionally-opposite examples of a total experience — of a lifestyle and its people.

Super-Rare 35mm Film Print Comes to the Walker Shortly After Director’s Death

“I am never driven. Every film I’ve made has been an assignment.” —Alain Resnais In the 1950s, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker ran in the same circles as the French New Wave — Godard, Truffaut, Varda — but as part of the Left Bank Cinema Movement they made more politically charged films, decidedly alienating their […]

Alain Resnais, 1922-2014

“I am never driven. Every film I’ve made has been an assignment.” —Alain Resnais

In the 1950s, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker ran in the same circles as the French New Wave — Godard, Truffaut, Varda — but as part of the Left Bank Cinema Movement they made more politically charged films, decidedly alienating their work from the entertainment industry. Their short film, Statues Also Die (1953), later to be described by the famed film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as “a combination of speculative art history, precise journalism, and a grim meditation on the various places and functions Africa and its separate cultures have assumed within white civilization,” was originally censored for 15 years because of its firm anticolonial stance.

Nowadays, though Statues Also Die is no longer censored or banned, public screenings are perhaps just as rare due to their antiquity. Rosenbaum wrote an article specifically about Statues Also Die amidst an extensive 2009 Resnais retrospective that screenings are “so rare that if you come across it in any venue […] you should drop everything to go and see it.” Not only has the preservation of this film been a delicate process, but we must also remember that theaters everywhere are throwing out their 35mm projectors for new DCP (Digital Cinema Package) formats. (I’m reminded of the Indiana Jones Trilogy VHS set I have at home, but without a VCR… or a TV.)

It should be noted as well that on March 1, 2014, just after his 50th film Life of Riley (2014) won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for “opening new perspectives in cinematic art,” Alain Resnais died at the age of 91. His death came a year and a half after Statues’ co-director Chris Marker’s in July 2012. Together, they contributed more than 1oo films to movie history including Night and Fog (Resnais 1955), Hiroshima mon amour (Resnais 1959), Le Jetée (Marker 1962), and Sans Soleil (1983).

As part of A Riff on the Rif: In the Spirit of the Cinematheque Tangier, the Walker Cinema will be screening a short film series on Saturday March 29 called Censorship in Colonial France: Returning the Gaze. The program starts with the aforementioned super rare 35mm print of Statues Also Die, followed directly by a digital screening of René Vautier’s Afrique 50 — another French anticolonialism film which suffered a 40-year ban and for which the director was sentenced to a year in prison.

Additionally, the films will be followed by a short documentary/interview with the director René Vautier called Sand and Blood, and Associate Professor Joёlle Vitiello of Macalester College will be introducing the films. The Walker Cinema is one of the last places in the Twin Cities with both 35mm and DCP technology. Come join us for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

What the GIF?!

GIFs — Graphics Interchange Format images (pronounced ” jifs”) — have been slowly taking over the internet since the early 2000s. Though they were invented in 1987 for purely utilitarian purposes (for example, the infamous “Under Construction” GIF), their resurgence in popularity is due to their daily use by common bloggers to express opinions, ideas, […]

A Phenakistoscope disc titled Politeness.

GIFs — Graphics Interchange Format images (pronounced ” jifs”) — have been slowly taking over the internet since the early 2000s. Though they were invented in 1987 for purely utilitarian purposes (for example, the infamous “Under Construction” GIF), their resurgence in popularity is due to their daily use by common bloggers to express opinions, ideas, and emotion (check out the popular Tumblr blog What Should We Call Me).

For those of you who don’t know what GIFs are, they’re short, silent animations that play automatically when they appear on an Internet page. Anyone can make a GIF with a simple photo-editing program, but with the build-up of GIFs spreading around the web right now, most users are simply re-appropriating them from open-source websites like Giphy.

George Méliès, the first filmmaker to use special effects in film.

GIFs have become so popular that a pair of Italian filmmakers, Marco Calabrese and Alessandro Scali of Okkult Motion Pictures, invented the Giphoscope, a hand-powered machine resembling a Rolodex (yeah, look that up too!) that animates GIFs printed on paper. The Giphoscope appears to be a pretty simple decorative piece, but upon closer inspection, the image arrangement is quite complex. The device itself is not something that just anyone could manufacture, or even purchase at Okkult’s steep price of €300. Its invention however shows that there is some desire out there for tangible GIFs. Fortunately, the Giphoscope isn’t the first of its kind.

In fact, the origin of film and movies comes from devices of animation. The first of these was the Zoetrope, which was invented in China sometime around 180AD. It was later re-conceptualized in the 1800s right after the invention of the Phenakistoscope. Then there was the Praxinoscope, and of course the infamous flip book. These inventions led to the first animated projections and the first perforated film reels. Almost twenty years later, the Lumière brothers would screen La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon, the first public film screening ever.

Edward Muybridge’s Horse In Motion proved in a Stanford study that there was a moment in a horse’s trot at which all hooves were off the ground.

Now, there’s the GIF: this strange little flickering image that seems more like magic than the internet itself. Why? Maybe because GIFs bring us back to the very beginning of the moving image. Or maybe it’s because the average attention span of a human is decreasing by 0.2 seconds every day (I made that statistic up. Who has time for — hey look, a GIF!). Perhaps it’s just because they keep us laughing when most million-dollar television shows and Hollywood movies don’t… For whatever reason, GIFs have found their place in the hearts of web-surfers across the worldwide net. I guess what we’re all wondering is: When did technology start getting accidentally nostalgic?

“Accidentally?”

From Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Home & Misrepresentation: Polar Vortexes and Palm Trees

As natives of the Upper Midwest, we find ourselves frequently subject to stereotypes in media. Actors portray us in film, theater, radio, and television by exaggerating our accent and donning outfits that almost exclusively consist of fur hats, flannel shirts, and knee-high winter boots. Fortunately we’ve learned to laugh along and occasionally accept that these […]

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As natives of the Upper Midwest, we find ourselves frequently subject to stereotypes in media. Actors portray us in film, theater, radio, and television by exaggerating our accent and donning outfits that almost exclusively consist of fur hats, flannel shirts, and knee-high winter boots. Fortunately we’ve learned to laugh along and occasionally accept that these depictions aren’t actually that far from the truth. But, there is a recurring misrepresentation of the Midwest itself in mainstream movies that we seem to continually overlook. This is apparent in films like the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996), Donald Petrie’s Grumpy Old Men (1993), and Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl (2007).

For instance, in the opening credits of Fargo (1996) we open up to a blank white landscape. A car appears from nowhere over a long period of time. It tows another car equal in size behind it as if to say, in winter, one must carry the weight of two.

Incidentally, we soon learn that one of the main characters, Marge Gunderson (played by Academy Award winner Frances McDormand), is pregnant. When we first encounter her, she is investigating a crime scene on the side of what may or may not be the same road from before. This time she and her partner meet and casually discuss the details of a triple homicide. At one point Marge asks her partner, “Where is everybody?” He responds, “Well, it’s cold Margie.”

Petrie’s  Grumpy Old Men is much goofier, featuring comical slapstick behavior with music to match. All in all, however, this film reflects the same damp and idle lifestyle as Fargo. In this scene, two grown men get in a fight out on a frozen lake and are egged on by fellow ice-fishermen. The fight only ends when an even older man, a former teacher, scolds them for their quarreling. They are children — malformed men.

Finally, in this clip from Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Lars (played by Ryan Gosling) viciously throws a rose off screen when faced with the opportunity to give it to a cute new girl in town. Notice that while winter hasn’t quite set in, the trees in the background are bare. All that remains of nature are the people within the scene, their heads down, bodies hidden under layers of polyester. Even when Lars finds himself holding a freshly cut rose, he tosses it off screen, as if protesting life.

All these films take place in desolate landscapes, bereft of life, within which characters either flounder emotionally or, in the peculiar case of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, they are unmoved, free of emotion, almost un-human. Rather than showing how the Upper Midwest is misrepresented in film, these scenes reveal how our home has been under-represented. Viewers of these films are only given a small fraction of our story.

The benefit of this under-representation is that the appeal of our home remains, at large, a secret. We remain a flyover region, the precious space over which coastal commuters can indulge in airborne libations and precious siestas. However, there is an artist at the Walker whose creative and curatorial work is deeply concerned with the misrepresentation of her home, an under-representation with much at stake, that is built upon romantic visions belonging more to Western colonization than simply dramatic entertainment.

Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada, is a film and visual art exhibition that will be on display in the Burnet Gallery until May 18. Visitors who explore the gallery and Barrada’s other works will find that the artist is very much concerned with the misrepresentation of Tangier. For example, her photograph Briques (2003/2011) –  which is not featured in the show — reveals a blunt and honest look at the haphazard beauty of scattered housing projects in Tangier. It is a photograph that wishes to tell the whole truth, a truth that escapes alluring and romantic vacation photos. It encompasses a bleak existence, while holding a childlike curiosity for the hills that roll off far into the distance. In contrast, her sculpture Palm Sign (2010), with its multicolored marquee light bulbs on an aluminum and steel palm-shaped sculpture, satires the exciting and exotic dream that palm trees have come to symbolize in advertisements and popular discourse around the world. Simultaneously, it addresses the palm tree as non-indigenous to North Africa, inherently a symbol of colonization. While these works are both beautiful and striking, they seem to begrudge the artist’s relationship to the place they represent.

As president of the Cinematheque de Tanger, a nonprofit organization based out of the Cinema Rif in Tangier, Barrada has also hosted thousands of screenings and promoted North African cinema worldwide. As part of the Walker exhibition, the upcoming film series A Riff on the Rif: In the Spirit of the Cinematheque Tangier is comprised of several films curated by Barrada. These stories are told in places like Tangier, Casablanca, and Algiers — cities that we in the United States only encounter on very rare, often brief cinematic occasions that are emblazoned with wildly exotic themes and Western obscurity. While audience members may expect to be immersed in unfamiliar territory, they will find instead that stories of the Rif are intimately threaded to somewhere deeper than setting or place. They are, in fact, irrevocably invested in what it means to belong to North Africa.

This is undoubtedly something Barrada hoped to achieve in this program. The Rif series is an important opportunity for viewers to experience a part of the world in ways they never have before, ways that are far more intimate and native. Characters of The Rif are genuinely of the worlds they live in, and many of their stories were born out of real experiences of the filmmakers. If you are the least bit concerned with misrepresentation, or would like to see North African cinema curated by a North African, this is your chance.

Treasures of the Scopitones: Discarded Wonders

Screening this evening, Treasures of the Scopitones shows an exciting history of a rare group of music films created by North African immigrants to France in the 1960s and early ’70s. Co-director Michèle Collery will be on hand to discuss the film at 7:30 pm. Full songs from Treasures of the Scopitones are playing in […]

Treasures of the Scopitones, 1999
Screening this evening, Treasures of the Scopitones shows an exciting history of a rare group of music films created by North African immigrants to France in the 1960s and early ’70s. Co-director Michèle Collery will be on hand to discuss the film at 7:30 pm. Full songs from Treasures of the Scopitones are playing in a scopitone on view in the exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada through May 18, 2014.

In 1996 Michèle Collery and Anaïs Prosaïc browsed the musical archives of Daidy Davis-Boyer, a well-known music producer working in the 1960s, researching for a documentary about a Sephardic song called “The Crooners of the Casbah.” Davis-Boyer shot hundreds of scopitones — short movies created for a jukebox that projected 16mm on a small screen — and stored the less-in-demand negatives in her garage. Collery and Prosaïc noticed four boxes of 16 and 35mm reels in the corner; seemingly abandoned, the boxes were labeled “Arab.” The two already made documentaries about Arab music and culture and knew about the legendary scopitones that disappeared from circulation after running in Parisian cafes in the ’60s and ’70s. The scopitone was invented by a firm called Compagnie des Applications Mécaniques et Électroniques au Cinéma et à l’Atomistique (CAMECA) in the early 1960s. Café patrons wishing to see one slipped a coin into the machines which then played filmed songs.

After interviewing Davis-Boyer, they found these negatives were music films shown in suburban Paris cafés where many North African immigrant workers gathered to gather, talk, and watch the musical endeavors of artists from their communities. Davis-Boyer deemed the reels uninteresting to audiences and now worthless to her, so Collery and Prosaïc received them as a gift. Viewing them on a projector confirmed they were the disappearing scopitones, produced in France (not in an Arab country) by Davis-Boyer.

Collery told me her interest in making films about Arab culture stems from her travel to many Arab countries — Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon — and from living in Tunisia and Qatar. Her radio show in Qatar about Francophone culture allowed her to introduce Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian songs the people there never heard. She knew to make an aesthetically pleasing documentary, she needed strong archival images to pair with the songs. “What attracted us [to the reels] is the socio-political element of songs telling stories about the mentality or evolution of a time now outdated … some sequences remind me of West Side Story or Fellini’s films,” Collery said.

The scopitones themselves magically pinpoint the problems affecting North African immigrants of the time — sadness over exile, racism, unemployment — through the poetic qualities, political consciousness, and modernity of the videos’ singers. Songs danced solely by women bear the lyrics, “I’ll never get married. I love the single life too,” and a group called The Golden Hands displayed three Moroccans resembling Jimi Hendrix on guitar. The expression of sexual freedom and ability to make rock ‘n’roll entirely debunked the perceptions other countries held of North Africans.

The singers and their descendants gathering in the café to re-watch these musical productions in Collery and Prosaïc’s documentary carefully point out there are “songs also about country, family, friendship, and fraternity … not just exile and separation.” In one, the popular group Idir dances around a sunny park, jubilantly singing, “women wear new garb and even men begin to dance … everyone is dancing, let yourself go, have a ball.” These videos are markers of the originality of North African singers and their insistence to have a good time amid other struggles.

From choosing the scopitones of best quality to finding interested producers in the company Canal+, Collery and Prosaïc shot the film in two days after contacting the singers through their record companies. Due to the lengthy process of gaining copyright to broadcasting rights, the total process took two and a half years.

Filming the reunion in the café was “a meeting full of surprises and warmth, very moving,” Collery said. Although there were generational gaps, the power of these people enjoying and engaging in part of the North African collective memory was immeasurable. The beauty of the selected scopitones with reactions from the café is what Collery believes “revives and introduces children and grandchilden of these immigrants to show the culture of their parents was not limited to the mosque and the land.”

The initial reception was successful in France, and Collery remarked that “in Algeria, it shocked some people … but in general the audiences were surprised and proud about the poetry, humor, and outspokenness of the writers.”

The Stuart Hall Project, Chronicle of Spirit

“When I ask anybody where they’re from, I expect nowadays to be told an extremely long story,” once said the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died February 10 at the age of 82. Hall was an English writer and theorist who co-founded the leftist cultural and political journal, New Left Review. He did this alongside […]

Stuart Hall at a rally, courtesy of BFI Film Forever

“When I ask anybody where they’re from, I expect nowadays to be told an extremely long story,” once said the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died February 10 at the age of 82.

Hall was an English writer and theorist who co-founded the leftist cultural and political journal, New Left Review. He did this alongside such famed intellectuals as Richard Hoggart and Edward Thompson, but came from a much different background than his colleagues. Born to an aspiring family in Kingston, Jamaica, he arrived in Oxford in the 1950s among fellow members of the West Indian diaspora. He achieved an excellent education and felt respected by peers, but was also faced with racism due to the color of his skin. He began to see how matters of identity extended into all facets of life. In a community that was ever expanding due to mass media, he therefore felt it was necessary to address issues of culture and politics beyond an audience of students, professors, and intellectuals. He started appearing on television in the ’60s and became one of the first figures to pose complex questions about racism and identity to wide popular audiences. He asked questions that led to more questions, and therefore pushed viewers, families in their homes, to continuously wonder about how things become the way they are, and how common perspectives are reinforced in daily life. Additionally, Hall published his thoughts and questions in essays, lectures, and short films, thus becoming one of the most frequently cited cultural theorists to date.

In 2013, acclaimed English artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah made a documentary film about Stuart Hall called The Stuart Hall Project, which will screen in the Walker Cinema on February 21. It is a beautifully crafted chronological exploration of Hall’s life through archival footage and the sounds of Miles Davis, with which Hall resonated deeply. But despite its adherence to a logical linear progression, the film overwhelms its viewers with the impression of infinity. Cuts disappear as we hear the sound of ocean tides, and a lonely record keeps spinning on and on in an empty room. Akomfrah’s film is masterful in that it highlights a man’s unique devotion to truth — a way for which we yearn, but which seems forever out of reach. This is a quandary with which Hall’s life was so intimately tied that it seems he himself, in spite of his death, has become endless — a spirit of heated curiosity and investigation.

This film is the most direct and succinct way of learning about who Stuart Hall was as a person, how he achieved such notoriety as a man of thought, and what ideas flooded his life. Despite his immense complexity and the complexity of life which he embraced so fully, audiences will leave the theater feeling as if they had met the man himself. But Hall was a man who devoted his life to questions beyond himself. To honor him, simply keep on being curious.

Dialogue: Producer Bill Pohlad on 12 Years a Slave and Working with Steve McQueen

On October 30, the Walker had the privilege of hosting the Minnesota premiere of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as the start of a retrospective that included McQueen’s Shame and Hunger and concluded with a dialogue between Steve McQueen and Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA. On January 12, 2014, […]

Walker senior curator of film/video Sheryl Mousley, artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen, MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer, 12 Years a Slave producer Bill Pohlad, and Walker executive director Olga Viso

Walker senior curator of film/video Sheryl Mousley, artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen, MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer, 12 Years a Slave producer Bill Pohlad, and Walker executive director Olga Viso at the Walker.

On October 30, the Walker had the privilege of hosting the Minnesota premiere of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as the start of a retrospective that included McQueen’s Shame and Hunger and concluded with a dialogue between Steve McQueen and Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA. On January 12, 2014, McQueen’s film won Best Motion Picture-Drama at the Golden Globe Awards. Beside him as he received the prize was Minneapolis-based producer Bill Pohlad, who introduced 12 Years a Slave at its Walker debut. Following the film, Pohlad returned to the stage for a conversation with Sheryl Mousley, the Walker’s senior Film/Video curator and the audience.

Sheryl Mousley: Thank you so much for making this film. I think it’s a film that leaves you a bit overwhelmed. It might be hard for the audience to jump right into talking about it. It takes your breath away. I will ask the first few questions before we open the conversation up to the audience.

We know from watching the credits that it’s a true story based on a memoir by Northup Solomon written in 1853. How did you come to this story, and how did this film project start?

Bill Pohlad: The movie started with Steve [McQueen] really wanting to make a movie about slavery, and there was a lot of work done to come up with a fictionalized version of the story overall but nothing developed out of that that felt genuine enough. But then Steve’s wife found the book and gave it to him and it all started from there.

Sheryl Mousley: It’s such a beautiful film. The look of it is so cinemagraphically elegant and yet it takes you down a harrowing trail. I was amazed watching it tonight how you found that balance between this beautiful look of the film and this unbelievably difficult, painful life the characters were going through.

Bill Pohlad: I hadn’t actually spent a lot of time in Louisiana before the shoot, but it is beautiful in its own way. It’s haunting. The plantation was actually a real plantation where a lot of this occurred and you feel the ghosts of all that when you go down there. It’s always the director’s job to be a charismatic leader. And Steve really was that. In addition to having the vision for the film you have to bring everyone into this community to take on such a serious, heavy, and emotional subject. There was something very peaceful and graceful about [the set]. Certainly when we were shooting the scenes it was harrowing but there was also a sense that something great was happening here.

Sheryl Mousley: I think I read somewhere that when you were doing the cotton picking scenes it was 108 degrees.

Bill Pohlad: Nothing was fake in that regard. It was very difficult conditions to shoot under but you always related it back to what real people went through. We were shooting a movie, but they lived it.

Mousley then opened up questions to the audience.

Audience member: What do you want the world to do with this film?

Bill Pohlad: In the making of the movie you don’t want to be too conscious of what you want people to come away with because it tends to twist the way you’re making the movie. Everything becomes too logical. You try and make the movie on the very emotional level. Certainly now that we’re in distribution I’m hoping we’ll go beyond the cinema part of it, and let it become part of the dialogue in the mainstream so that we can face that part of our history and how it relates to our society today.

Audience member: I was wondering at what point in the development of the film did you get involved, and why did you choose this film?

Bill Pohlad: We were making The Tree of Life with Plan B and they had met with Steve and talked about what he wanted to do next. [Producers] Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt talked about doing something else together. I met with Steve and could see his passion immediately, and he already knew what direction the project was going in. I don’t want to say it was a ‘no brainer’ but with that kind of story and that kind of group forming around it, you know it has a good chance.

Audience member: It was a powerful movie that will stay with me, so thank you for making it. My question is, besides Solomon Northup’s book, what other research and documentation was used to adapt his story to film?

Bill Pohlad: We had done a lot of research before we found the book. When we brought [John Ridley] on as a screenwriter, he did his own research, and all the different groups involved (Plan B, etc) contributed their own as well. As we’ve gotten into distribution many more people have come into the equation to flesh out and give their blessings to the content.

Audience member: It seems to me for this film to have any effect, Americans have to really believe that this happened. My dad was the 15th of 16 children, only went to school until 5th grade, and was one of the smartest people I knew, but worked in a factory for 43 years because that’s all he could do. I’ve heard so much from so many people that tells me that this has a ring of truth to it. But I think we have a long history of people in this country saying “is that how slaves were really treated?” So my question to you is how have people been responding to this film?

Bill Pohlad: From everything I’ve read and the reactions I’ve witnessed, people have been taking it very seriously. But when you’re making movies you don’t overblow the effect it’s going to have. It’s not like one movie is going to change everything. But when you are able to put something like this film together and see the impact, you hope that maybe things just turn a little bit in the right direction. But I feel like I shouldn’t even be talking here. To hear your story, to hear everybody exchanging ideas on it—that’s what it should do.

Audience member: How much did the language of Northup’s writing help to paint a rich picture of the experience that he went through?

Bill Pohlad: We had the benefit of the book having his kind of musicality, his way of speaking. John Ridley and Steve, and Chiwetel [Ejiofor (Northup)] took that and blended it into the dialogue. I think it’s as honest as it could be relative to that sound from the writing.

Audience member: It seems some distant happening, and I just wanted to bring into focus that this is a current paradigm in America, it’s just undercover in many ways. My Question for you is who chained the “slaves?” What was the sensitivity on the set?

Bill Pohlad: I can’t answer that particular question, but generally the vibe on the set was really amazing. Steve has a very gentle way of being, and in the most difficult scene… you get those performances because the whole crew has a respect for everybody and for the subject matter. They create an environment where people feel safe to not only perform these very emotional scenes, but also deal with pretty heavy issues. How that happens is hard to break down, but you would walk around the set and know that everybody knew what was going on and that the vision Steve had would bring it across in a very genuine way.

 

Sign Painting Cinematheque Tangier

The exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada includes films, artworks, and artifacts that speak to artist Yto Barrada’s connection with the social and political realities that shape her hometown of Tangier—its rich and fractured history of migration, indigenous communities, and colonization. In 2006, Barrada founded the independent cinema Cinémathèque de Tanger in […]

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The exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada includes films, artworks, and artifacts that speak to artist Yto Barrada’s connection with the social and political realities that shape her hometown of Tangier—its rich and fractured history of migration, indigenous communities, and colonization. In 2006, Barrada founded the independent cinema Cinémathèque de Tanger in a languishing structure in the city’s famed Casbah district as a way to engage with the collective memory and material history of Tangier. Cinema Rif, as the theater is named, was brought to life as both a thriving cultural center and a place to discover the films and remarkable history of filmmaking in the region. Curators Sheryl Mousley and Clara Kim commissioned local sign painter Dan Madsen (Dusty Signs) to recreate a map of Tangier on the gallery wall, which identifies the location of theaters past and present in this coastal Moroccan city. Over the course of 193 hours, Dan and fellow sign painter Forrest Wozniak tirelessly brought the 16-by-25-foot map to life, in what Dan referred to as “sign painter’s boot camp.” It was nice having sign painters in house for a couple weeks, showing us how they do what they do. Below is an interview with Dan about his history of sign painting, the techniques he uses, and the resurgence of interest in hand-lettering.

How did you originally get in to sign painting? Did you always want to be a sign painter?
I came into the sign business in 2007 working for a large sign shop. That same year my grandfather passed away and I discovered that his father (my great grandfather) was a sign painter here in Minneapolis. He worked for the largest outdoor advertising company in America called General Outdoor Advertising. I inherited old brushes, books, drawings, and photographs from him. Lettering was always something I enjoyed because of my grandfather. He was a medical illustrator and calligrapher for the local VA hospital. I remember as a young kid playing in my grandpa’s studio, writing my name with his calligraphy pens. So when I discovered that great grandfather was a sign painter, I decided to practice traditional sign painting. Now its six years later and I work for myself under the name of Dusty Signs.

Dan Madsen’s great grandfather Bernard Benson with his crew at General Outdoor Advertising, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dan Madsen’s great grandfather Bernard Benson (far right) with his crew at General Outdoor Advertising, Minneapolis

Dan Madsen’s grandfather Larry Benson at his drawing table at the V.A. hospital, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dan Madsen’s grandfather Larry Benson at his drawing table at the VA hospital, Minneapolis

A lot of sign painters seem to be inherently suspicious of modern signage techniques, such as vinyl lettering. Do you look around and feel overwhelmed with the amount of terrible signs there are? How do you understand our contemporary visual environment in America?
Yeah, there are a lot of bad signs out there, but there are also a lot of good ones. Being a sign painter, I don’t think everything needs to be hand painted. I think there is a time and place for everything. I still get a kick out of seeing nicely made neon signs or metal fabricated signs. It is unfortunate though when you look at a sign and you can tell the designer just pressed a few buttons using bad pre-existing fonts and then had a sign shop just pop that out as fast as possible. Nowadays people rely on the computer too much. A computer is a tool and it can do great things, but sometimes you have to put the computer down, pick up a pencil and hand draft. I’ve been noticing more people want signage hand painted lately, so I’m hoping things might get better here in America, at least visually.

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Can you describe the process of creating this wall mural?
For this wall the images were pre-designed, so this is how it went:

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Step 1: First I print out the design scaled to actual size on paper in my studio.
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Step 2: Next I use a machine called an Electro Pounce to perforate the paper where the lines will be. It is basically an electrified stylus that burns a series of holes into the paper.
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Step 3: Then I tape the paper patterns onto the wall and apply charcoal to pounce through the little perforated holes, and take the paper down again. This leaves a faint outline of the design on the wall for me to work from.
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Step 4: Finally I paint over the charcoal outlines with a brush. It’s up to me how true to the charcoal outlines I need to stay, and when I can deviate based on experience. Michelangelo used the same technique.

Were you inspired by any of the Moroccan hand-painted lettering in the exhibition?
Definitely inspired. I love seeing hand-painted signs from all around the world. In some countries sign painting is popular not by choice but because it is the only option people can afford. The signs aren’t always the most refined, but I still love seeing them — they aren’t overly romanticized, in search of some kind of “Instagram fame.” Some of the movie posters in this exhibition reminded me of that. We didn’t actually emulate any particular kind of sign painting for the map, but instead used a simple blueprint lettering. The original image of the map was not very hi-res, so we were free to extrapolate a typographic style that made sense, and translate the original into something new on the wall.

What did you think of the Sign Painters movie (and the book it was based on) that came out recently?
I thought it was really great, although I wish they would’ve acknowledged the type of sign painters you see working on East Lake Street, painting all the windows in Latino shops. Those guys are the real deal. I’ve got a lot of respect for how fast and consistent they can paint. Working at the Walker was cool and we got a lot of positive feedback from folks while working. It was nice to work in the context of an art museum, because sometimes when working out on the street we’re looked at as more industrial house painters. That all depends on the viewer, I guess.

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From left to right: Adjunct Curator Clara Kim, Dan Madsen, Yto Barrada, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley

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Forrest Wozniak and Dan Madsen

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Dan Madsen working on the title graphics for the show, designed by Walker graphic designer Andrea Hyde

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Dan Madsen working on the title graphics for the show, designed by Walker graphic designer Andrea Hyde

I Used To Be Darker: This Film Is Not About Music

Sixteen minutes into I Used To Be Darker you’re led into a house show behind 19-year-olds Taryn and Abby. The inside looks like an art gallery, people are smoking and dancing and stage diving, and the lead singer is shirtless, flailing around onstage. Honestly, it feels like you’re in Minneapolis. But the scene is set […]

Taryn (played by Deragh Campbell) in Matt Porterfield's _I Used To Be Darker_ (2013). Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.

Taryn (played by Deragh Campbell) in Matt Porterfield’s I Used To Be Darker (2013). All photos courtesy of Strand Releasing

Sixteen minutes into I Used To Be Darker you’re led into a house show behind 19-year-olds Taryn and Abby. The inside looks like an art gallery, people are smoking and dancing and stage diving, and the lead singer is shirtless, flailing around onstage. Honestly, it feels like you’re in Minneapolis.

But the scene is set in Baltimore. Why, then, was I instantly transported to Minneapolis? Is it because it reminded me of a house show I went to? Not really, the underground rock scene in the Twin Cities usually ends up less raw, less punk, more nonchalant shoegaze.

Everyone, to varying degrees, subconsciously views movies through their own personal experiences, trying to make sense of characters and scenes from the people and memories from their life. This may seem obvious—don’t we all view our entire lives through our past experiences?—but people who are even slightly involved in the Twin Cities music scene are going to connect to I Used To Be Darker more than people in New York City and definitely more than people in Los Angeles.

Bill (played by Ned Oldham) jamming with Jack (Jack Carneal). Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.

Bill (played by Ned Oldham) jamming with Jack (Jack Carneal)

While it’s certain similarities and my own history that made me liken the film’s portrayal of Baltimore to Minneapolis, it’s very deliberate elements of the film that immersed me in its environment and let me make these connections at all. This is Matt Porterfield’s doing. As the director and co-writer of I Used To Be Darker, which screens this Friday and Saturday at the Walker, Porterfield layers the film’s narrative with dynamic musical performances that will stick with you long after the film ends. But it’s not the songs in and of themselves that will touch you, because music is not the basis of this film, despite what the trailer and title will make you believe. The music is more of an expertly crafted character element that works because of much more essential principles. The foundation of this film is built of two things: camera movement and relationships.

Taryn (Deragh Campbell). Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

Taryn

“Every single shot in I Used To Be Darker was held by Jeremy [Saulnier, Director of Photography] on his shoulders. That breath, the sort of tie to the biological functions of the camera operator really gave it an intimacy that if it had been locked off, if the frame had been still, we wouldn’t have had.” - Matt Porterfield

Giving your movie a handheld feel, with the camera never quite stopping even when it’s focusing on one shot, is not something Porterfield invented. It is new territory for him though, whose two previous features, Putty Hill and Hamilton, were shot on tripods and other tools that kept the frame relatively still. One technique is not necessarily better than another, but one was the right choice for the movie Porterfield wanted to make—and he made it.

What you remember from the movie will undoubtedly be vivid snapshots—the sweaty frontman of Dope Body playing the house show, Bill winding up to smash his acoustic guitar, Kim and Taryn flipping through the scrapbook—but what’s more important than what you remember seeing is how you feel while watching. You’ll find yourself walking behind Taryn and Abby, sitting across the room from Bill, feeling like the camera lens is reflecting your own vision, not an omniscient one. This is a greater task than we realize now that every other blockbuster is in 3D and people don’t differentiate the experience of having things fly at you with the experience of feeling the characters’ presence.

Taryn and Kim (played by Kim Taylor). Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.

Taryn and Kim (played by Kim Taylor)

“Taking a cue from 18th century modes of melodrama, it’s full of big emotions, broad gestures and song, but like the best cinematic realism it also finds time to explore the quotidian.” - Matt Porterfield

This is not usually something wise to do, but I must go against the director’s stance here. Yes, I Used To Be Darker has moments of big emotions and broad gestures, but it is far from “full” of them. I also would never describe this film as melodramatic, acknowledging that he’s not doing so here. I would go the opposite route and say this film is utterly realistic and true to human emotions and human relationships. There are endless moments in this film where Porterfield could have crescendoed into a scene-stealing monologue or pushed a character to lash out physically, leaving the audience wide-eyed and silent. Instead of going this route, he and co-writer Amy Belk chose to think about how humans actually act in real life. The most dramatic outbursts and moments of passion in this film ebb as fast as they swell. The result is far from melodrama, but the audience still ends up wide-eyed and silent—for the film’s realism is more potent than any exaggeration could have been.

Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.

Taryn and Abby (played by Hannah Gross)

“We made this movie because we needed a document of good existing inside of terrible…We thought it might be something other people needed too. And if it succeeded in no other way, it would have a really good soundtrack.” – Amy Belk

Whether it’s the physical and musical thrashings of Dope Body’s Beat or the pre-guitar-thrashing melancholy of Ned Oldham’s One That Got Away, you’re going to leave I Used To Be Darker with one or more songs seared into your brain. Belk shouldn’t worry though—the film succeeds in a multitude of other ways, but it doesn’t hurt that I’m now a Ned Oldham and Dope Body fan.

I Used To Be Darker screens at the Walker on Friday, October 25 and Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 7:30 pm. A discussion with director Matt Porterfield and producer Steve Holmgren follows.

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