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Timeline: A History of Christopher Nolan in Nine Films, Eight Years, and Four Interviews

It’s only appropriate that Christopher Nolan’s May 5 visit to the Walker Art Center came on the heels of the dizzying release of the latest teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Fresh off his own trek to the outer reaches of space with the spectacular sci-fi adventure drama Interstellar, Nolan […]

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, 2014. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Paramount Pictures

It’s only appropriate that Christopher Nolan’s May 5 visit to the Walker Art Center came on the heels of the dizzying release of the latest teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Fresh off his own trek to the outer reaches of space with the spectacular sci-fi adventure drama Interstellar, Nolan 38 years ago was, like countless moviegoers worldwide, forever impacted by the George Lucas’ 1977 space opera. But unlike most starry-eyed fans, Nolan was inspired to expand the Star Wars universe in his own cinematic way, and in doing so, he was inadvertently laying the foundation for a legendary, Lucas-like career of his own as a writer, producer and director.

“I started making Super 8 films when I was 7 years old,” Nolan told me in 2006, in the first of four conversations we would have about his films over the next eight years. “My first few films were little action-figure extravaganzas, and soon, as Star Wars came out and changed everything, my movies were Star Wars ripoffs for years, with spaceships and action figures. They were little, mini-epics. It was great fun.”

The filmmaker’s dialogue with Variety film critic Scott Foundas earlier this week comes only months after the release of Interstellar, perhaps undoubtedly his most ambitious project to date. Released in November 2014, Interstellar is a harrowing yet uplifting tale of a dying planet Earth that, among many other things, examines wormholes, black holes, and the notion of love transcending the boundaries of space and time.

Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, 2002. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, 2002. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Timing, of course, is everything for anyone’s career in Hollywood, and in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine what might have been had the business had been running on Nolan’s clock during a pivotal moment in his career. After his debut feature with the indie mystery thriller Following in 1998 and the critically acclaimed mind-bender Memento in 2000, Nolan was marching forward at a rapid beat by attracting Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank to his 2002 atmospheric crime thriller Insomnia.

The film established his relationship with Warner Bros. and effectively laid the groundwork for his reimagination of studio’s famed DC superhero, Batman, with Batman Begins. But, as the filmmaker revealed, he was all but ready to launch into his magician opus, The Prestige, before realizing he didn’t have the proper amount of time to effectively recalibrate the expansive, time-honored tale of the Caped Crusader.

“I was going to make the film before Batman Begins, and right at the last minute—literally the last day before I was going to get on a plane and start looking for locations for The Prestige—I realized that we just didn’t have the time to do the film justice and turn Batman Begins around for a summer 2005 release,” Nolan said. “I promised the studio that I would not allow [The Prestige to be overshadowed], so we put the film on ice and was able to come back to it a couple of years later.”

In doing so, Nolan—bolstered by the success of the superhero film—was able to return to the project about magic and obsession with such heavy hitters as Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson and a few familiar faces.

“I was able to reapproach the script [for The Prestige] with fresh eyes, which was great, and also from a casting point of view, I was able to imagine, suddenly, Christian Bale as Alfred Borden and Michael Caine as Cutter,” said Nolan, who has produced all his films with his wife, Emma Thomas. “To me, those parts are unthinkable with anyone else at this point.”

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, 2006 Photo: Francois Duhamel, courtesy Newmarket/Photofest ©Newmarket Films

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, 2006. Photo: Francois Duhamel, courtesy Newmarket/Photofest ©Newmarket Films

Ironically, Bale wasn’t an automatic for the role as Borden, a technically gifted magician who found himself at odds with Jackman’s Robert Angier, a flamboyant magician with better stage presence than Borden, but who is inferior in skill.

“Since we worked together so well on Batman, the only hurdle was, ‘Is Chris going to see me anything but Bruce Wayne?’ That was tricky,” Bale told me in 2006. “Fortunately, he was very easily convinced. I made a couple of calls to him and he said, ‘All right, let’s do it.'”

Nolan appeared less concerned over the Batman factor with Bale, because he knew going into The Prestige what the actor was capable of sans a cape and cowl.

“It was really great fun to get Christian in an arena where the acting was everything,” Nolan recalled. “We used lighting setups where we didn’t have marks so the actors could wander around freely and be a bit more spontaneous and looser with things. It was tremendous to watch him take that opportunity and just run with it. He’s an extraordinary performer. The layers he’s put into the performance are just thrilling.”

“Dark” days

As Nolan tipped his hand in the direction of The Joker at the end of Batman Begins as the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis for the film’s sequel, The Dark Knight, he knew that he had to find an actor to play the Clown Prince of Crime that brought as much complexity and ferocity to the role as Bale brought to Bruce Wayne/Batman. His choice was an unlikely one with Heath Ledger, and it was met with intense push-back from the Batman fan base when the first photo of The Joker—a close-up revealing only the scarred face of the character—appeared online in a viral campaign.

And while Nolan started his Batman experience with an utmost respect for the fans, he also knew he had to stand firm by his casting choices no matter how ugly the criticism got.

“The way I’ve chosen to respect the fans and the investment in this character, which I feel they quite rightly own to a degree, is to sincerely make the best possible film,” Nolan said, just as The Dark Knight went into production. “That’s what we did with the first one, and that’s what we will continue to do, and hopefully that will see us through. Attempting to pander to anybody’s expectations and going against your instinct of what to do … that I know won’t work. But hopefully it will work to stay true to what we think will be the greatest possible movie.”

Perhaps Nolan’s words in 2006 were part of sort of some self-fulfilling prophecy, because by the time The Dark Knight arrived in theaters in July 2008, the feverish anticipation of film was unbearable. Unfortunately for Nolan and his collaborators, the buzz was largely due to the curiosity over Ledger’s performance, because while the actor completed his scenes on the film, he also tragically died nearly eight months before at age 28.

Speaking in 2008 before the debut of the The Dark Knight, the director told me with a heavy heart that it was hard to celebrate the performance of The Joker—which eventually earned Ledger a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar—without the actor being there.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, 2008 Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, 2008. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

“It’s extraordinarily bittersweet to have Heath not around and see the impression that he’s making on people,” Nolan said. “At the same time, I have to admit to feeling great relief that people seem to be receiving the performance very much in the way the Heath would have liked and would have intended.”

The positive reception by critics and preview audiences of Ledger’s performance came as a incredible relief: “It means that I think I did my job OK in terms of putting together his performance and letting it speak the way he intended—which is big responsibility for any film director under any circumstances, let alone when the actor’s died,” Nolan said.

In crafting the film after Ledger’s death, Nolan said it was important to stay true to the way he originally intended to assemble it, instead of letting his personal emotions about his star’s death change the way he completed the project.

“I think and honestly believe that the performance in the film is exactly the way it would have been if Heath had not passed,” Nolan observed. “The truth is, the character he created was so incredibly different to who he was that it made it easier to be more objective about it. This monstrous creation that he’d given us for the film was so opposite to who he was and what it was like to work with him.”

Rising above expectations

While The Dark Knight created a burning anticipation for his planned third film in The Dark Night trilogy, the billion-dollar success of the film worldwide also gave Nolan an incredible amount of clout to pursue other projects outside the superhero realm. With a penchant for creating cerebral narratives for all of his films—superhero or otherwise—Nolan embarked on a trip to the subconscious with the mind-bending espionage masterpiece Inception.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception, 2010. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception, 2010. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a corporate thief who plants ideas in unknowing victims’ minds through a technology that allows him to enter people’s subconscious thoughts, Inception featured Nolan’s biggest ensemble cast yet—including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cottilard and his frequent collaborator, Michael Caine.

Inception also starred Tom Hardy, an actor who would prove to be pivotal to Nolan’s next Dark Knight installment. Hardy, who played Eames, a forger who can project the image of anyone within the subconscious mind, effectively helped Nolan fulfill his desire to do a 007 film.
“Definitely, Eames in Inception was Christopher Nolan’s ode to Roger Moore’s James Bond,” Hardy told me in a 2012 interview.
While Hardy was a refreshing surprise as a relative newcomer to American audiences in Inception, the actor’s presence grew exponentially (and along with it, pressure) as the main villain, Bane, in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. After all, he was faced with the daunting task of living up to Ledger and his legendary performance in The Dark Knight.

In a 2012 interview for The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan told me that in the creation of Bane, he had to find a villain in the Batman lore that would provide something different than the psychological terror The Joker imposed in The Dark Knight four years before.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, 2012. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, 2012. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

“What we knew after the end of the second film was that we had an ending for the third. We knew where Bruce Wayne’s story was going, but then we had to construct the tale that would get us there. We needed to find an antagonist for Batman who would primarily be a physical adversary,” Nolan recalled. “We didn’t want to tread on anything Heath had done with The Joker. We wanted to do something that we hadn’t done before, which was to put Batman opposite an adversary who could trade blows with him. We wanted to create a very palpable tension in the audience of not knowing who’s going to win that fight. Bane gave us a really great opportunity to do that.”

While he was the main villain in the film, Hardy wasn’t the only actor facing huge expectations to deliver in The Dark Knight Rises. Anne Hathaway, despite being fresh off a critically-lambasted gig as co-host of the Academy Awards, still caught Nolan’s attention as a frontrunner to play the ambiguous cat burglar Selina Kyle and Catwoman (although she is never referred to that moniker in the film) because of her stage presence.

“She can project a very minutely observed psychological characterization. She can build a character from the ground up in a very realistic way the best film acting requires,” Nolan said. “Yet, she can also go on a stage and entertain 1,000 people, and fill a room with her energy and her vibrancy.”

The combination of those sensibilities, Nolan said, is exactly what Hathaway needed for the dual role of Selina Kyle and her costumed alter ego.

“She’s playing a real character in a grounded universe that we’re trying to create, yet she’s taking on an iconic status, so you need those two things to play both sides,” Nolan said. “It’s very rare that you can find actors who can do both things.”

Days of future, past

The first Nolan film that takes viewers beyond the stars, Interstellar is a 2 hour, 49 minute film about a dying planet Earth and search beyond the realm of our galaxy for a planet for the human race to survive.

An ode to Stanley Kubrick and indelible impression the legendary director’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had on Nolan’s life and career, Interstellar was presented to Nolan through his frequent screenplay collaborator, his brother, Jonathan. Nolan’s younger sibling was originally tasked to write a screenplay for producer Lynda Obst and world-renown astrophysicist Kip Thorne, for a film that was originally to be directed by Steven Spielberg.

Once Christopher Nolan was brought on board to direct and build on the foundation of his brother’s screenplay, a familiar feeling set in: the complex emotion of fear. But fear, a popular theme in Nolan’s films—especially in The Dark Knight trilogy—is something he thrives on as a filmmaker; and for Interstellar he was driven by the idea of presenting images never seen on screen before.

Christopher Nolan on the set of Interstellar, 2014. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Paramount Pictures

Christopher Nolan on the set of Interstellar, 2014. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Paramount Pictures

“Every film you want to have things in there that really frighten you, and there were plenty of those experiences I wanted to find out for myself in Interstellar in terms of what things would look like and feel like [in the depths of outer space],” Nolan told me in 2014. “I had a great team, from visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and (special effects coordinator) Scott Fisher, to the great theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Kip was able to work with the visual effects guys and give them the actual equations for how a wormhole would look, how a black hole would bend light around it. He explained it and they were able to render it more accurately than it’s ever been done before.”

While Nolan’s continues to evolve in his career, presenting viewers with images they’ve never seen before, it’s refreshing that his approach to filmmaking remains timeless. Whether it be his insistence on casting classic actors or shooting on film stock (and presenting it on film whenever possible, an increasingly difficult thing to do in the age of digital projection), Nolan said it’s the history of cinema that’s inspiring his visions of today, and tomorrow.

So rest assured, as we bear witness to the work of Christopher Nolan as he moves through time, the integrity of moviemakers past and their timeless creations will remain with him, and most importantly, be forever presented through him.

“I love movies and love the history of movies. With it—just as you have the history of the Batman comics to draw on with all their great writers and artists—you have this great history of experimentation and innovation of the past masters of moviemaking,” Nolan told me during our interview for The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. “You’d be crazy not to study that and avail yourself to that, and look beyond the trends of today to see the moments of what’s been done in the past. They may surprise you and surprise the audiences of today when they’re represented again.

The Walker Cinema screens nine of Christopher Nolan’s films as part of retrospective, Christopher Nolan: Moving Through Time, May 5–24, 2015.

Mediatheque V1.0: A New Cinema

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mediatheque_viewmaster-cover

Championing new forms of cinema, celebrating the masters of the past, and engaging with audiences have always been fundamental values of the Walker’s Moving Image department. This tradition continues with the launch of the Mediatheque, a new onsite screening environment that invites visitors to screen their own selection of titles from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. This project is the culmination of several years in the making—with Caylin serving as the project manager of the Mediatheque and archivist for the Ruben/Bentson Collection, and Anthony as the technologist for New Media Initiatives. The Mediatheque merges both the on-demand, modern culture of selecting movies with the classic, immersive cinema experience.

The Mediatheque is situated within a long history of programming unique, culturally, and historically significant films at the Walker. As early as the 1950s, films were programmed on the Walker’s campus as well as off site at important cultural organizations. With the establishment of the Film Department in 1973, the Walker began acquiring film prints by some of the most influential filmmakers of all time, such as D.W. Griffith, George Melies, Charlie Chaplin, and Maya Deren.

The collection is currently comprised of more than 1,000 titles with strengths in the American and European avant-garde, early American cinema, Soviet cinema, and the films of William Klein. Created to further the understanding and appreciation of film as an artistic medium, the collection provides audiences, especially residents of the Twin Cities, with an opportunity to watch films that they might not otherwise see.

In order for initiatives that provide collection access, like the Mediatheque, to become a reality, the collection’s preservation needs first needed to be assessed. Beginning in 2012, the department undertook extensive work to stabilize its collection of 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm celluloid prints, update collection records, and review for copyright concerns. As the department obtained permission from filmmakers, prints were cleaned and digitized according to best practices using 2K technology. Besides preserving the films in the collection, digitization efforts also created more possibilities for exhibiting films throughout the Walker campus.

William Klein's Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?) (1966)

William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)

Hollis Frampton's Lemon (1969)

Hollis Frampton’s Lemon (1969)

Buster Keaton's Cops (1922)

Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922)

However, what differentiates the Mediatheque from other spaces on the Walker campus is that it allows you to curate what you want to watch, as well as preserves the cinematic experience we’ve all come to know and love—viewing films on the big screen.

The Mediatheque features a diverse range of collection titles and aims to appeal to anyone with an appreciation of cinema, from aficionados to newcomers. Using a touchscreen remote, you can browse thematic playlists or browse individual films. You can narrow your findings using the filter functionality. Filters include director, decade, nationality, and genre.

Playlists provide a broad thematic window into the collection. You can choose to either add all of the films to the queue or just select titles.

Once a title is selected, you can then read a brief description of the film as well as view stills or a short clip before choosing to queue the film. Once a film is queued, it is projected onto the Lecture Room’s cinema screen.

The queue controls the order in which films are played. More than one visitor can select films to watch, and the films are screened in the order in which they were added. If you add a film to the queue and decide to leave partially through, another visitor is welcome to remove that film from the queue and play their selection.

In the coming days, we will be publishing a more in-depth post that covers the digitization and development of the Mediatheque, the Walker’s first native application. It has been an amazing experience to architect, design, and execute a unique screening environment that provides our broad audience with unprecedented access to this incredible collection. We encourage you to join the audience even if others are already playing a film. Who knows? You might experience something new.

The Art of Conversation: Public Dialogues with Artists

In high-contrast black and white, the opening scene of this film fades up on a large and airy room. A small man stands in the middle distance, dramatically spot-lit and faces a large sculpture that dwarfs him. A second man enters from a doorway at the end of the gallery, back-lit in silhouette, and whose […]

Marcel Duchamp in Conversations with Elderly Wise Men, NBC, 1956

Marcel Duchamp in Conversations with Elderly Wise Men, NBC, 1956

In high-contrast black and white, the opening scene of this film fades up on a large and airy room. A small man stands in the middle distance, dramatically spot-lit and faces a large sculpture that dwarfs him. A second man enters from a doorway at the end of the gallery, back-lit in silhouette, and whose confident voiceover booms out on the soundtrack as the two men turn to face each other on camera.

Voiceover: In the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a collection of paintings and objects by a man whose unique view of life has greatly influenced modern art.

[Cuts to diegetic sound]

Man: So here you are, Marcel, looking at your big glass.

Marcel: Yes. The more I look at it, the more I like it.

This highly staged opening scene is from the January 15, 1956 episode of NBC’s series Conversations with Elderly Wise Men, where the director of the Guggenheim, James Johnson Sweeney, interviews artist Marcel Duchamp.

Beginning with Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915–23), the pair walks around the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s galleries, stopping in front of recent acquisition of the artist’s sculptures and paintings. They talk amiably about the parallel chronologies of Duchamp’s life and work, as well as his influences—Cubism, Impressionism, and his love of playing chess.

The dramatic Hitchcock-esque lighting and the pair’s stilted conversation (not to mention the program title I initially read as “Conversations with Elderly White Men” and which wouldn’t be a mischaracterization of the series as a whole) dates this interview as something of a conversational fossil in comparison with the online informality to which we have become accustomed in HuffPost Live interviews and Reddit AMAs. But even so, the Duchamp/Sweeney interview reveals as much about the function of the public presentation and broadcast of the “artist in conversation,” as it does Duchamp’s own recollections of his work.

What artists say in public—about their life, influences and their own readings of their work—has always been of great significance in museum and scholarly interpretation, even when what is said is completely contrary. (During a different interview with art critic Calvin Tompkins, for example, Duchamp suddenly reflected on the format of what they were doing together: “I don’t believe in talking. Here we have been talking for hours! But don’t believe what I say.”)

And yet the coaxing out of thoughts, and the broadcast of such reflection to a public, remains a central part of how museums bridge the interaction between artists and the audiences. The question of what it might mean to be a spokesperson for one’s own art is still an urgent one. And although this Duchamp/Sweeney interview is a rarity within the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection (a collection that is almost exclusively dedicated to the collection and preservation of artists’ moving image art works, not descriptions of them as this interview appears to be), the artist-in-conversation format nonetheless remains a central part of the Walker’s public programs, and is a cornerstone of the Walker Dialogues program that broadcasts its conversations within the Walker Channel.

Some artists are experts at the public talk format. Filmmaker Stan Brakhage, for example, was a master of monologging and especially of the elongated personal andecdote, where his articulate projection of his artistic vision through his own descriptions seemed as if it were a parallel broadcast and commentary on and with his work. But the pressure to “explain” or for the artist to function as an articulate ambassador to one’s art work is no easy task. For some, it is incompatible with making the work; for others, it simply becomes the work. German artist Martin Kippenberger’s various video interviews, for example, often appear to be standalone performance in themselves, which deny the format’s desire to talk about work by replacing it with another art work or a series of “public selves.”

In contrast to Brakhage and Kippenberger’s incorporation of the in-conversation as an extension of artistic narrative, Duchamp was traditionally professional; on the one hand there was the work, and on the other there was him talking about the work. In short, they were separate entities with distinct functions. That Duchamp gave so many public interviews was testament to his own capacity to speak about his work with great ease and accessibility to general audiences. His love of the formal qualities of the work and the pleasure of making something could be easily understood.

Although first broadcast by NBC in 1956, this Duchamp interview was recorded in 1955. The timing is significant: the recording took place in the same year in which the artist was officially recognized as a US citizen. Duchamp’s increasingly widespread recognition as a highly influential artist merged that year with the public identification of Duchamp as an American. And although it’s hard to tell from the polished sheen of this formal interview, there was also a particular intimacy between interviewer and interviewee; Sweeney (along with then-MoMA advisory director Alfred H Barr and art collector James Thrall Soby) attended as a witness to Duchamp’s naturalization ceremony. This film thus stands as a document of transition of an individual within a widening audience: it locates a moment of shifting national identity of an artist, and the acquisition of his work into a major American public collection. These things can be read implicitly as the “in conversation” has shifted from broadcast item to historical artifact.

Public in-conversations that occur with an audience present, as well as those simply recorded for an at-home audience, are deep resource documents for public and professional scholars and, like Duchamp on NBC, such materials can be read implicitly as well as explicitly, critically as well as illustrative. These conversations are, after all, crucial moments of public interface, which provide oral histories to the artworks we encounter, and sometimes even challenge the hierarchies between supporting interview and artwork. I’m reminded here of pianist Jason Moran’s 2005 sampling of an Adrian Piper interview, where Piper discusses the artists communication with their audience, as she explains, “If artists intentions and ideas were more accessible to the general public, I think it might break down the misunderstandings between the art world and artists and the general public.” It was not without a certain shrewd self-reflexivity that former Walker curator Bartholomew Ryan inserted Moran’s recording as an introductory soundtrack to his in-conversation talk between artists Liam Gillick and Hito Steyerl, the opening of which is captured in the clip below.

In its most basic form, the format of the artist in conversation traditionally looks a bit like that of a talk show. It comprises an interviewer (a professional interlocutor, or expert of some kind) and a subject (the artist). The third element—the public—doesn’t need to be present at the time of the conversation necessarily, but present or not, it is still the primary reason the conversation takes place at all. It is this public that provides the unspoken pressure  for the conversation to “go somewhere”—to be engaging, surprising, argumentative or revealing.

The interviewer and the interviewee must become co-producers of their own social scenario. Both must piece together narratives, stitch together anecdotal evidence, partial memories, and occasionally confessional material that, when combined, allow the audience to slip between the feeling of eavesdropping on a one-on-one conversation while watching two people engage in something akin to a performance. It is this rather vertigiousness movement between intimacy and information, between dialogue and monologue, that gives the in-conversation its allure, not to mention the entertainment produced by accident and spontaneity.

But as the formal manners of Duchamp’s NBC interview have waned, the personalization of time and broadcasting has changed, and audiences have become increasingly sophisticated and responsive listeners. Artists, meanwhile, have increasingly taken control of their own mediation through the non-scarcity resources of online self-publishing. Questions, too, have been raised over the authenticity or productiveness of fatigue-based public conversations, like the Serpentine’s annual Marathon series (where artists, writers, scientists, film-makers, choreographers, theorists and musicians come together for a hectic schedule of non-stop talks and events).

The desire to cut out the middle-man interviewer has had great success in Reddit AMAs, though notably outside of the sphere of visual art discussion. But the logical extension of cutting out the middle-man is to undo the format completely—to begin a conversation not with the interviewer or even the artist, but the artwork. In many ways, that’s the dialogue that the artist seeks to establish with their work in the first place.

 

Filmmakers in Conversation: The Zellner Bros. on Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

A grainy VHS of Fargo is the only solace for Kumiko, the newest protagonist from writing-directing-acting team the Zellner Bros. In a whimsical and bizarre exploration of humans’ preoccupation with fiction, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter tells the story of a disillusioned woman who is so obsessed with a movie that she is convinced it contains […]

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A grainy VHS of Fargo is the only solace for Kumiko, the newest protagonist from writing-directing-acting team the Zellner Bros. In a whimsical and bizarre exploration of humans’ preoccupation with fiction, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter tells the story of a disillusioned woman who is so obsessed with a movie that she is convinced it contains a treasure map. When her life reaches new levels of mundane, she leaves her home in Japan and hops on a plane to America to find the buried money. The Zellner Bros. shot their fifth feature onsite in both Tokyo and Minnesota, employing two different supporting casts and crews. Kumiko premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Joined by Variety Chief Film Critic Scott Foundas, David and Nathan Zellner visited the Walker in September of 2014 for the Walker’s Filmmakers in Conversation series. They discussed the origins of their film, casting choices, and comedic inspiration. You can watch the entire dialogue on the Walker Channel. For more on the blending of reality and fiction in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, read a recent New York Times article addressing the new possibilities of the imagination in the era of the moving image.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter will be released in theaters across the country this month. The film opens at Landmark Theatres in the Twin Cities on March 27.

Walker Dialogues and Film Retrospectives: Crowd-sourced Cinema Line-up

This summer the Walker Film/Video department will celebrate 25 years of Dialogues and Retrospectives by hosting weekly screenings in the cinema. The crowd-sourced series will give audiences the opportunity to pick from some of the most influential and provocative films that played Walker Art Center over the past 25 years. From directors like the Coen […]

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This summer the Walker Film/Video department will celebrate 25 years of Dialogues and Retrospectives by hosting weekly screenings in the cinema. The crowd-sourced series will give audiences the opportunity to pick from some of the most influential and provocative films that played Walker Art Center over the past 25 years. From directors like the Coen Brothers, Ang Lee, and Agnès Varda, there is sure to be something for everyone. You may vote for as many films as you would like through April 15th and results will be updated automatically.

Check back here in April to see if your favorites made the final cut. Walker Dialogues and Film Retrospectives were launched with support from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and sustained over the past 25 years with generous support from the Regis Foundation and Anita and Myron Kunin.

Filmmakers in Conversation: Ruben Östlund and Force Majeure

Swedish director Ruben Östlund visited Walker Art Center in January of 2015 for the Filmmakers in Conversation series to present his retrospective entitled In Case of No Emergency. One of Scandinavia’s most innovative directors, he tests his characters by placing them in tense social situations that examine human prejudice. His most recent film, Force Majeure, […]

Director Ruben Östlund during his January 2015 visit to Walker Art Center.

Director Ruben Östlund during his January 2015 visit to Walker Art Center

Swedish director Ruben Östlund visited Walker Art Center in January of 2015 for the Filmmakers in Conversation series to present his retrospective entitled In Case of No Emergency. One of Scandinavia’s most innovative directors, he tests his characters by placing them in tense social situations that examine human prejudice. His most recent film, Force Majeure, follows a Swedish family on vacation in the French Alps. When a controlled avalanche threatens to overtake them, the family dynamic is permanently shaken. Like his previous features Involuntary and Play (also included in the retrospective), Force Majeure encourages audiences to reexamine their own behaviors and values. In May of 2014, Östlund took his third trip to the Cannes Film Festival where Force Majeure won the Jury Prize. His next film, tentatively called The Square, examines societal trust in public spaces. In conjunction with the film, he is planning a gallery exhibition that puts visitors to the same test that his characters face.

After the Walker screening of Force Majeure, Östlund joined Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a post-screening conversation that addressed the failure of the nuclear family, using close ups for the first time, and finding inspiration on YouTube. This conversation is now available on the Walker Channel.

 

A Vision Workshop: The Exchanges of Stan Brakhage and Sally Dixon, Part 2

Friends, colleagues, and champions of each other’s respective careers, artist Stan Brakhage and curator Sally Dixon had a life-long relationship. Their history of swapping letters and sharing neighborhoods, as well as the gifting of works and other ephemera, clearly demonstrated that there was many routes through which Crystal Clips — the Walker’s as-yet unidentified 16mm film believed to […]

Stan Brakhage editing in Rollinsville, Colorado 1978.  Photograph by Sally Dixon.

Stan Brakhage editing in Rollinsville, Colorado, 1978. Photo: Sally Dixon

Friends, colleagues, and champions of each other’s respective careers, artist Stan Brakhage and curator Sally Dixon had a life-long relationship. Their history of swapping letters and sharing neighborhoods, as well as the gifting of works and other ephemera, clearly demonstrated that there was many routes through which Crystal Clips — the Walker’s as-yet unidentified 16mm film believed to be a Brakhage “work in progress” — could have passed between Brakhage and Dixon’s possessions.

As I mentioned before, Crystal Clips had been found among Dixon’s gift to the Walker of Brakhage 16mm and 8mm film cans. The original film can bore a typed-up sticky label with the title, a largely anonymous piece of information without any handwritten marks, although the wear and discoloration on the tape matched that of the neighboring Brakhage containers. The 16mm film, meanwhile, had been transferred to an archive-safe can and stored in the Walker’s archive freezer so as to minimize the inevitable degradation to which all objects (celluloid or otherwise) are subject.

After Crystal Clips was pulled from the archive freezer and spent three days thawing out, I went down to the Film/Video archive, a temperature-controlled room in the Walker’s basement, to meet Caylin Smith, the Bentson archivist. While Caylin unpacked the film, she pointed out a handwritten note she’d found accompanying the film. The paper was clearly the same type Sally Dixon often used in her own notes, and the writing — a list of films, which presumably was meant to correspond to the contents of the reel — likewise matched Dixon’s hand. Also included was a yellow Post-It written in the hand of Walker Archivist Jill Vuchetich, which most likely recorded a comment made by Sally Dixon at the time of the gift’s acquisition.

Unidentified note accompanying Crystal Clips. Photo: Isla Leaver-Yap

Caylin booked a screening slot with Joe Beres, the Walker’s Film/Video projectionist, so we could see the film in the cinema. We’d have to wait for a quiet gap between the Walker’s regular print checks (when projectionists inspect the quality of the film or video material as it comes in from a distributor and prepare it for the public screening program) and the regular public screening schedule.

Caylin suggested we look at the Crystal Clips reel by hand. She carefully unspooled the film on a light-box. It clocked in at approximately 50 feet long, so it was clearly a short film, likely no longer than three minutes. Entirely black and white, and without a sound-strip to signify accompanying audio of any kind, Crystal Clips resembled the kind of compilation reel that keen cinema enthusiasts could order from public distributors such as Blackhawk Films. The contents of the films varied slightly from the accompanying blue note, and I recorded it thus from its interspersed title cards:

Dr E.J. Marey, Studied in Animal Motion, c. 1887, France

Charles Urban, The Electrolysis of Metals, 1910, Great Britain

Georges Melies, The Dreyfus Case (Clearing the court-toom), c. 1900, France

Victor Turin, Turksib, 1929, USSR

Clearly a personalized edit of a longer reel, I wondered whether it had in fact been a teaching aid of some kind, rather than artistic material put aside for a “work in progress.” This educational use seemed possible, given that Brakhage’s first engagement with Dixon was via her invitation to lecture in Pittsburgh.

Looking at Crystal Clips. Photo: Isla Leaver-Yap

Looking at Crystal Clips. Photo: Isla Leaver-Yap

I took a few reference photographs on my cell phone before the film was spooled up to pass on to the cinema and returned to the Walker’s main archive room to look through Dixon’s correspondence folders and consult publications of Brakhage’s writings and lectures held in the Walker’s library next door.

As is generally known, not to mention heavily evidenced through their correspondence, Brakhage and Dixon both regularly taught the history of cinema. Dixon taught during her role as Carnegie’s film curator, while Brakhage lectured at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later as the distinguished professor of film studies at CU Boulder, retiring from his post only a few months before his death in 2003. (Brakhage also taught a master class when he was at Film in the Cities, while Dixon was director.)

Whether from Dixon’s curatorial position or Brakhage’s artistic one, they both contextualized their own work in the field of artists’ film within a highly individual canon: they would discuss their work and the work of Kenneth Anger, James Broughton, and Jonas Mekas, as part of a historical trajectory of artists’ film that began with the Lumière Brothers, Hans Richter, and Georges Méliès. But the significance Brakhage and Dixon both attached to teaching artists’ film came not only of a desire to share their work in context, but also to fill what they saw as a vacuum of understanding around the arts, and how the artists’ film was a key part of that under-served discussion. As Brakhage lamented in a conversation with Mekas much later in 2000,

All the arts, what we traditionally call the arts, have suffered from this breakdown of terminology, this lack of serious critique. Here is a discipline far older than any other we know of human beings, but when it’s taught in public schools, in fact in colleges, it’s taught as a playground for finger painting and for expressing yourself.

Brakhage was a skilled historian and teacher. His courses were wide ranging, and included Painting and Film, Biographical Film, Avant-Garde Cinema, Documentary Film, and Transcendental Film. He lectured extensively on early cinema, with idiosyncratic style and underscored by romantic lyricism and unabashed bias. (His presentation on D.W. Griffith, for example, begins: “They named him David: and he was to grow up to become a giant and slay himself.”) In Dixon’s personal papers, I found a copy of writer and poet Guy Davenport’s introduction to a public Brakhage lecture which beautifully describes the discursive nature of the latter’s lecturing style:

He is going to climb this mountain by wrapping it with his footprints; he will come down again when he is halfway up, climb another mountain by way of digression, and then go back up the first one. He shows us that to be interested in anything we must be interested in everything. This kind of mind is not an American tradition. We are raised to respect conviction rather than analysis, persuasion rather than interpretation. Brakhage uses up the average man’s portion of speculative thought every day.

Analysis and interpretation was arguably key to both Brakhage’s and Dixon’s teaching styles, as they sifted through, ordered, and presented what was then a nascent history of artists’ moving image and established a context for their own practices.

In the library, I read a first edition of The Brakhage Lectures (since reissued as a free pdf by Ubu Editions). Brakhage delivered these lectures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Fall/Winter semester of 1970–1971. As Ian Robertson’s afterword to the publication records, Brakhage screened 43 films, and it is this list of film works that were a key source in cross-referencing the films listed in the Crystal Clips reel and its accompanying note.

Dixon, meanwhile, included some of the titles of Crystal Clips at the workshops she presented at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where she was an instructor. In “Personal Film,” a 1976 course that she evocatively described as “a vision workshop,” Dixon walked her students through her own interpretation of artists’ film, where the surrealist shorts of Salvador Dalí and Francis Picabia were followed by screenings of work by her contemporaries: Bruce Connor, Marie Menken, Jonas Mekas and, of course, Brakhage. Dixon always sought to succinctly define the operational and practical characteristics of artists’ intentions: the Lumière Brothers “specialised in actualities, views”; Edison “specialized in theatrical and staged scenes”; while Méliès was concerned with “fantasy, fiction, illusion.”

But all three, Dixon explained to her students, depicted how,

the materialist mind of the nineteenth century had their [sic] eyes open onto the world. Any interesting visual phenomenon, commonplace or exotic, was material for the early short films. They were “gathering in” a world newly opened by improved transporation, intentions and communications. They were seeing both “out” and “in.”

Dixon’s notion of “gathering in” images and knowledge via travel and communication seems to me an apt description of Brakhage’s and Dixon’s own roles as primary disseminators of a new history of artists’ moving image work. And within this scenario, Crystal Clips had significant practical uses to both the artist and the curator. Both Brakhage and Dixon referenced these particular works frequently in their lectures and personal notes.

The assigning of provenance to work is fraught with obstacles both practical and legal. While it’s not necessarily my place or responsibility to verify provenance, I can make some reasonable estimations based on the following: Dixon believed Crystal Clips to be from Brakhage when she gifted it on to the Walker; the discoloration of the can and the reel was similar to the degradation of her other Brakhage works; and Brakhage frequently donated works, books, and other ephemera that he though would be useful to her. The material on Crystal Clips itself, meanwhile, looked to be an extracted copy of a larger and more general reel that presented the history of early film. While examining the back catalogue of the Huntley Archives, another film distributor of early cinema, I found a reel with a similar composition of films. Crucially, the intertitles from Crystal Clips matched the typography of the Huntley reel, the latter of which was in general circulation for educational and reference purposes.

Emily Davis, a former Walker researcher who is now Senior Research Associate for the Time-Based Media Collection at the Carnegie Museum of Art, was in touch with Dixon following the acquisition of Dixon’s gift and archive, of which Crystal Clips was a part. Keen to get her opinion, I sent Davis some of the snapshots I’d taken of the filmstrip, and she generously fed into my research. Speculating that the film was a reversal print, she shrewdly noticed that the filmstrip showed evidence of a “printed-in” splice:

In other words, evidence that the source material has a splice. If that’s true, this would lead me to think that this is a contact print of a “working print.” Stan could have complied the “working print” or he could have simply printed this copy for Sally, another aspect to think about.

Once Joe the projectionist had found us a cinema slot, the Walker Film/Video department — Caylin, Sheryl Mousley, Dean Otto and Kate Rogers — assembled in the cinema to view Crystal Clips. Joe pointed out the traces of optical printing, while Dean noted how “dupey” the print looked — possible evidence of a small-scale reprinting, rather than something more industrial. In the cinema, it was clear that Crystal Clips was not a Stan Brakhage “work in progress” but most likely a custom-printed educational reel, shared between two friends who were also teachers.

Despite the fact that the image is now heavily deteriorated, Crystal Clips races through the invention of cinema as a new visual culture in three compelling minutes. It specifically foregrounds the intersection dramatic narrative and technology — from the breakthroughs of E.J. Marey’s sequenced photographs of animal locomotion, to the construction landscapes of the Turkestan–Siberia Railway captured in Viktor Turin’s Turksib.

As a film, Crystal Clips provides an illustrative role. Its historical contents rely on a guide, on supporting notes delivered by another voice that might unpack and describe the dense excerpts of cinematic innovation.

But as an artifact within the Bentson Collection, Crystal Clips reveals something else. The work and expertise that goes into something as simple as following up a small note like “may have been compiled by Stan Brakhage / work in progress” not only shows the collaborative endeavor of archival research, but also exposes the informal networks through which artists’ moving image circulates both then and now: through the casual passing of hands, out of a common syllabus or a mutual interest, and a desire to share and exhibit an experience beyond one’s own intimate circle of enthusiasts and specialists.

The films included on the Crystal Clips reel were critical tools that Brakhage and Dixon deployed in order to carve out the basis for what we now consider to be the development of artists’ moving image in the western world. Despite the fact that both had initially shown relentless boldness to compare their work and the work of the contemporaries with the great technologists of early cinema, their narrative is nonetheless sustained, amended, and expanded today. And, regardless of provenance or authenticity, the circulation of artists’ moving image has always relied on acts of generosity. As Brakhage himself noted:

I like to share films with people. I think I’ve behaved in the same way that a person would if they saw some precious thing drifting out to sea. You try to rescue it.

Oscar-nominated Timbuktu screens at the Walker

“Passionate and visually beautiful … Timbuktu is a cry from the heart—with all the more moral authority for being expressed with such grace and such care.” —The Guardian (UK) Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar-nominated Timbuktu screens over two weekends (February 20-March 1, 2015) here in the Walker Cinema. Inspired by a real-life stoning of an unmarried Malian couple in 2012, […]

Still from Timbuktu.

“Passionate and visually beautiful … Timbuktu is a cry from the heart—with all the more moral authority for being expressed with such grace and such care.” —The Guardian (UK)

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar-nominated Timbuktu screens over two weekends (February 20-March 1, 2015) here in the Walker Cinema. Inspired by a real-life stoning of an unmarried Malian couple in 2012, the film offers a harrowing portrayal of the Tuareg raid on Timbuktu. This Islamist group forcefully imposed Sharia law as part of their separatist agenda in the ongoing Malian civil war. Sissako’s film denies the obvious binary of good and evil, instead portraying the subtleties of the clash of the Arabic, French, and English speaking populations. Though his film centers around the story of a man condemned to death for accidentally killing a neighboring fisherman, Sissako offers a choral structure that gives voice to all different types of civilians living in Timbuktu. The film unfolds slowly and beautifully, treating each scene and character with empathy and hope.

In a special series of post-screening discussions, professors, local clergy, and prominent leaders from the Twin Cities African community will discuss the intersections of Sissako’s filmmaking and the conflict in Mali. For a complete list of screening dates and times, please click here.

Sissako will also travel to Minneapolis in early April for a retrospective of his earlier films, including Waiting for Happiness (Heremakono), Timbuktu, Life on Earth (La Vie Sur Terre) and Bamako. A post-screening discussion with the director will follow each screening.

Hi8: Eight Questions with Chris Mason Johnson and Chris Martin, Writer/Director/Producer of Test

Hi8 is a new series of short interviews that serve as a quick hello to film figures we’re following. Inspired by the Walker’s 8-Ball Q&As, the series launches with a look at writers, producers, directors, and actors nominated for an Film Independent Spirit Award. In a self-navigated format, each artist picks questions from a list, answering those eight […]

Still from  Test . Photo courtesy of Serious Productions.

Still from Test. Photo courtesy of Serious Productions

Hi8 is a new series of short interviews that serve as a quick hello to film figures we’re following. Inspired by the Walker’s 8-Ball Q&As, the series launches with a look at writers, producers, directors, and actors nominated for an Film Independent Spirit Award. In a self-navigated format, each artist picks questions from a list, answering those eight that best expose their current musings and fascinations. No two interviews are the same.

Nominated for the John Cassavetes award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, Test documents the life of a modern dancer living in San Francisco in 1985 as he struggles to navigate his sexuality, masculinity, and career. The film’s writer, director, and producer Chris Mason Johnson, was a dancer himself as part of Frankfurt Ballet and White Oak Dance Project before pursuing a career in film. Test is the director’s second film and won two Grand Jury Awards at Out Festival in Los Angeles. Fellow producer Chris Martin is based in San Francisco where he has spent the last decade working in film, television, and journalism. He currently has two other films in the works. Both Chris’s took a moment to answer a few questions about novels, artistic influences, and recharging creatively. Test screened at the Walker at the end of January.

Chris Mason Johnson, Writer/Director/Producer

1. What was your worst (college/post-college/make-ends-meet) job?

An admin assistant to a choreographer. I’d been a professional dancer and suddenly I was this office boy faxing things while the dancers danced without me.

2. What is one of the most unexpected influences on your art?

My own past. I thought I was going to bury it but I put it on display.

3. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Physical thing: my jaw. It’s weak. Psychological thing: chronic procrastination.

4. How do you recharge creatively?

Pose questions to myself before I fall asleep and see if I have the answer when I wake up, or at least a feeling for them. Also: walking without technology.

5. Whom would you like to spend three hours in an elevator with?

A very talented and generous masseur.

6. What’s your most vivid Minneapolis memory?

Buying a folk art wooden pig with wheels and surprising my boyfriend on his birthday at our hotel while on tour with the Frankfurt Ballet. He’d seen it earlier in a store and loved it. I snuck back and bought it for him.

7. What global issue most excites or angers you?

Excites: the spread of basic human rights to all corners of the globe. Angers: the treatment of women where those rights have yet to spread.

8. What is your advice for young people today?

  1. Your 20s matter. Be careful what you work at because it might stick.
  2. Money matters but not in the way you think it does.
  3. Learn how to listen. It’s not easy. 

Chris Martin, Producer

1. What have you been obsessing about lately?

Living in sunny and dry California, I’ve been obsessing about winter wonderlands lately, even watching cross-country ski tournaments in the Alps on ESPN just for the scenery.

2. What is something you have never done before?

I’ve never gone sailing on a craft of my own and I’ve never gone spelunking. I would love to do both.

3. What global issue most excites or angers you?

Building tract houses on the earth’s richest farmland.

4. How do you recharge creatively?

I read short stories or take my camera out to shoot landscapes that only I think are beautiful.

5. What’s your most vivid Minneapolis memory?

Going swimming in the downtown YMCA with its big windows that overlook buildings.

6. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Abstinence.

7. What’s your favorite mode of transport?

Trains and bicycles – they work great together.

8. What have you been reading lately?

Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk and Station 11.

The Film Independent Spirit Award nominees screen annually at the Walker Art Center as part of a collaboration with IFP. Screenings are free for all IFP and Walker members. Click here for the complete list of screenings.

 

Hi8: Eight Questions with Ira Sachs, Director/Writer, Love Is Strange

Hi8 is a new series of short interviews that serve as a quick hello to film figures we’re following. Inspired by the Walker’s 8-Ball Q&As, the series launches with a look at writers, producers, directors, and actors nominated for an Film Independent Spirit Award. In a self-navigated format, each artist picks questions from a list, answering those eight […]

Hi8 is a new series of short interviews that serve as a quick hello to film figures we’re following. Inspired by the Walker’s 8-Ball Q&As, the series launches with a look at writers, producers, directors, and actors nominated for an Film Independent Spirit Award. In a self-navigated format, each artist picks questions from a list, answering those eight that best expose their current musings and fascinations. No two interviews are the same.

Jeffery Perkey, filmmaker Ira Sachs, and Dean Otto, program manager, Walker Film/Video

Jeffery Perkey, filmmaker Ira Sachs, and Dean Otto, program manager, Walker Film/Video

 Love is Strange, the second installment in an unofficial New York Trilogy, is nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards (Best Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor). Director Ira Sachs and writer Mauricio Zacharias team up again to tell the story of two men—Ben and George—who finally get married in New York City after 39 years of partnership. Because of their recent marriage, George is fired from his teaching position at a Catholic school and the couple is forced to live separately while they figure out their finances. Sachs traveled to Minneapolis in January to introduce his film at Walker Art Center and participate in a post-screening discussion. His previous films have screened at Sundance, including Forty Shades of Blue that won the Grand Jury Prize. He is currently working on a new film with Zacharias called Thank You For Being Honest.

1. If you could throw a dinner party for anyone in the world, who would you invite?

My kids, Viva and Felix, and my husband Boris.  In fact, I’m going to invite them for that dinner tonight.

2. What is your hometown like?

Memphis is a city that if you happen to be born there poor you have as little opportunity for good education or good housing as if you were born poor in Calcutta. The American dream is not alive and well in Memphis, TN.

3. What’s your favorite place to people-watch?

The Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  They have nice benches and in the winter, when it’s cold outside, there are few places better to while away the hours watching the world go by.

4. What is your greatest extravagance?

I would say going out to dinner more often than I might.  I don’t like fast cars, or fancy watches, but I do like sitting in a round, leather-seated booth at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill on 9th St in NYC, and having a good meal and conversation.

5. What was your favorite birthday like?

I turned 40 on the tail of the hardest few years of my life so far, and I feel that I came alive again at a party hosted by friends for me on the top floor of the Pompidou Museum in Paris. That night, the past and the future didn’t look so bad.

6. What’s your favorite comfort food?

I eat gazpacho for lunch 4 or 5 days a week, six months a year (the warm months), so I guess that’s comfort.

7. What has been your favorite age so far? Why?

This moment now, without question. As I get older I find that I appreciate what I have more than what I want to have.

8. What recent album, film, or book did you consume recently that you wish you had created?

I have a bit of filmmakers envy for the work of the Chilean director Sebastián Silva (Crystal Fairy, Nasty Baby).  There’s an ease to his directing that I covet.

 

The Film Independent Spirit Award nominees screen annually at the Walker Art Center as part of a collaboration with IFP. Screenings are free for all IFP and Walker members. Click here for the complete list of screenings.

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