Our Moving Image staff surveys the world of film and video from classic to global, experimental to digital.
Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women screens at the Walker Art Center on October 21 as part of the series Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary. Kelly Reichardt doesn’t make typical movies. She doesn’t make love stories, mysteries, or farces. Her films offer few thrills and little means for vicarious escape. While so many filmmakers aim to transport their audience to another […]
Kelly Reichardt doesn’t make typical movies. She doesn’t make love stories, mysteries, or farces. Her films offer few thrills and little means for vicarious escape. While so many filmmakers aim to transport their audience to another world, Reichardt finds plenty worthy of interest in our own. Indeed, there are few contemporary filmmakers who have plumbed the existential depths of the mundane with such stubborn regularity and resounding success. From a hard-up young woman searching for her missing dog in a small Oregon town (2008’s Wendy and Lucy) to two old friends attempting to reconnect over a weekend camping trip (2006’s Old Joy), Reichardt’s stories examine the ways in which the most elemental stuff of our identity and life experience seeps into the unremarkable activities of our day-to-day lives.
“I really like filming processes. Whatever that is: walk across the country, build a fire, build a bomb, go to work, feed a horse,” Reichardt said after a screening of Certain Women at the New York Film Festival (NYFF). “The getting to and fro seems to be where a lot of things take place.”
Starting with 1994’s River of Grass—a sort of anti-road movie about two would-be fugitives in suburban Miami who never quite get it together to actually flee—Reichardt has directed six features to date, all bearing her signature character-oriented approach. Rather than trace linear paths of character growth, Reichardt’s human studies develop by an accumulative process of patient observance. As such, the conflicts that propel her stories are more frequently logistical than interpersonal: a broken down car or covered wagon (as in the 2010 period Western Meek’s Cutoff), a malfunctioning cell phone, a familiar landscape that refuses to yield a path half-remembered.
Reichardt’s characters are lost, stuck, or wanted, and in the particulars of their responses to these situations, the director finds some hint of their truest selves. Wendy’s (Michelle Williams) observant distrust of the people she encounters, coupled with her single-minded devotion to the task of locating her pet, suggest a life balanced on the rim of catastrophe, though her past circumstances and plans for the future are only ever sketched in the vaguest detail. When—in 2013 monkey wrench thriller Night Moves—the fall out of an act of sabotage threatens to spiral out of control, the increasingly extreme responses of Jesse Eisenberg’s radical environmentalist bear grim testimony to the monomania of his convictions. These revelations rarely arrive as dialogue, tending instead to emerge from the narrative space that surrounds words, Reichardt’s camera lingering on a face, a landscape, or a complex task well past the dramatic threshold of most other directors. As Certain Women co-star Laura Dern puts it, Reichardt is “interested in the life that happens in the pauses,” an approach that opens up entirely new avenues of exploration for the actors she works with.
“It’s really vulnerable to not play something. Or not be expected to play something,” shared Kristen Stewart, undoubtedly the most high-profile member of Certain Women’s marquee cast. “All of a sudden you start revealing things rather than displaying them.”
In Certain Women, Stewart plays Beth, a recent law school graduate teaching a night class in Belfry, Montana who finds herself the object of the ambiguous attentions of a local ranch hand (Lily Gladstone). Adapted from a trio of short stories by Montana-raised writer Maile Meloy, Certain Women shares a nominal ontology with earlier literary adaptations Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy (both inspired by Jon Raymond stories). Yet unlike those projects, which Reichardt patiently stretched to fit the expanded frame of a feature film, Certain Women’s triptych structure demands a dramatic concision relatively new to the director’s work. In adapting Meloy’s stories—unrelated works from two different collections—Reichardt introduced peripheral connections to bring the character’s worlds into dialogue. While some of these overlaps provide meaningful subtext between plot lines, they are, from a narrative standpoint, pretty tenuous, clearly not intended to unite the original stories into a seamless whole. What results is unique within Reichardt’s oeuvre: an ensemble film that approaches its themes from a number of different angles, rather than dwelling with one or two characters over the course of its run time.
NYFF, where Certain Women screened earlier this month, offered a bounty of new films anchored by strong female leads, featuring a slate of accomplished actresses that included Stewart, Isabelle Huppert, and Sônia Braga. This is a heartening trend, certainly, yet most of the roles spoke to a fairly limited sphere of experience: on one hand, the hyper-practical business culture of contemporary Western capitalism (Elle, Toni Erdmann), on the other, the more abstracted realms of celebrity and art (Personal Shopper, Aquarius). Within this formidable field, relative newcomer Gladstone’s understated, painfully honest turn opposite Stewart came as a breath of fresh air: a different type of woman’s experience, worlds apart from the professional habitats and upper-crust social scenes of the of the urban Western world. Buried beneath layers of thermal knit cotton and canvas, the rancher, with her artlessly butch demeanor and kind, open face, bears the marks of both the bleak solitude and indelible hopefulness of a life spent in big empty spaces. One night, Gladstone’s character shows up to class on the back of a horse—maybe the one place she feels truly herself—offering Beth a ride to the local diner. The chapter’s final set piece, in which the real depth of the rancher’s feelings are finally laid bare, is one of the more potent depictions of unrequited love in recent cinema, Gladstone riding out the pendular emotions of the moment with heartbreaking sincerity.
If Stewart and Gladstone’s encounter provides the film with its emotional climax, the preceding chapter equals those heights in terms of sheer dramatic nuance. In the second of Meloy’s adapted stories, Williams (in her third Reichardt film) and James Le Gros play a married professional couple building a second home in rural Montana. Hoping to give the property a certain geographic authenticity, the pair attempt to convince an elderly local (René Auberjonois) to sell them an unused pile of sandstone. Hinging upon Auberjonois’s exquisite portrayal of the fast-fading Albert, a simple negotiation leads into melancholic dreams of a distant past, soon to be buried beneath the petty logistics and modest hopes of the younger couple’s future. A perfect encapsulation of Reichardt’s unique approach, this simple material dilemma blossoms into a tender, philosophical examination of aspiration and the passage of time.
In the film’s opening chapter, a lawyer, Laura (Dern), finds herself trapped by the increasingly reckless behavior of a dissatisfied client, Mr. Fuller (Jared Harris). A construction worker who suffered a life-changing injury as a result of employer negligence, but ceded his right to sue when he took an initial settlement, Fuller refuses to accept his lack of legal options, eventually taking matters into his own hands. Though in Night Moves Reichardt showcased a previously unflexed talent for building cinematic tension, Fuller’s eventual showdown with the authorities is an anticlimactic, amateur affair, underlining his character’s tragic delusion. Laura and Fuller’s reappearance in the film’s coda provides Certain Women a rare instance of unambiguous character growth and the clearest articulation of its deeply felt, humanist themes. Left alone in the end, his bridges burnt, Fuller implores his lawyer to write him a letter: “You could talk about the weather, talk about your day. Just so you put it in an envelope and put it in the mail.”
The title Certain Women, with its hint of sexual moralism, might well serve a work of trenchant ideology, but Reichardt’s film bears few traces of irony. While several of her characters invoke an explicitly feminist consciousness, Reichardt’s new film—like the politically ambivalent Night Moves—is not intended to be read as a persuasive document. This is not to say Certain Women isn’t a feminist film. It most certainly is. But the inherent radicalism of Reichardt’s film is less ideological than dramatic. Reichardt’s character portraits are so meticulously wrought, so subtly human, so empathetic, that it becomes easy to forget how rarely female characters of this depth and complexity appear on American movie screens. Struggling to navigate an ambiguous world, Reichardt’s characters are far from perfect. While at times they seek out the route of compassion, at others, they settle for the path of least resistance. Most inch just a little bit closer towards a life marked by the dignity and respect they and the people around them deserve. Above all, these women are emphatically real. That in itself is a radical concept and a practice worth celebrating.
Though distinguished by native tongue and nationality—not to mention nearly a century—filmmaker Dziga Vertov and musician Spencer Wirth-Davis have a lot more in common than might be immediately apparent. One is a legend of his craft, a technical pioneer whose kinetic stylized montage influenced the course of cinema, while the other boasts a comparatively modest […]
Though distinguished by native tongue and nationality—not to mention nearly a century—filmmaker Dziga Vertov and musician Spencer Wirth-Davis have a lot more in common than might be immediately apparent. One is a legend of his craft, a technical pioneer whose kinetic stylized montage influenced the course of cinema, while the other boasts a comparatively modest resume, as one of the more prolific and sought after beatmakers in the Twin Cities. Yet their equally innovative methodologies demonstrate a shared spirit of formal experimentation, a patient willingness to seek out the most elemental, potent iteration of their chosen craft. A veteran of the Twin Cities hip-hop scene who makes instrumentals under the name Big Cats, Wirth-Davis will perform his original score to Vertov’s silent ode to city living Man with a Movie Camera on August 22, in the final installment of the Walker’s Summer Music & Movies 2016: Living on Video series (local punk favorites Bruise Violet will open the outdoor event in Loring Park). Although the two artists work in different media, their output is more than complementary. Rather, their pairing marks a strange sort of cosmic collision, a meeting of two artists whose practices speak in eerie parallel and attest to the enduring questions confronted by one making art in an increasingly technologized world.
Born Denis Kaufman in the city of Bialystok in the Russian Empire (located in modern day Poland), Dziga Vertov adopted his professional name (the surname derived from the Ukrainian verb “to spin” and the given name an onomatopoeia referring to the noise of a camera crank turning) shortly before becoming a filmmaker. As Vertov described it in remarks to the Association of Workers in Revolutionary Cinematography in 1934, his first encounter with filmmaking came not as a director, but as an actor. In a short clip shot outside of a Moscow summer home, Vertov jumped one-and-a-half stories from the top of a grotto to the ground below. He described his amazement, upon later watching the footage, at how the scene, shot in relative close-up, provided a hyper-detailed study of the moment’s emotional minutiae: in turn revealing fear, indecision, resolution, and, finally, surprised self-satisfaction, as the actor prepared for and successfully completed his leap. Seduced by this quality of representational precision, Vertov embraced a seemingly paradoxical approach to art-making in which effect and technical manipulation were treated as tools to be used in the service of realism, the mode in which Vertov believed the cinema enjoyed a particularly privileged position.
Accordingly, Man with a Movie Camera delivers a bounty of special effects, which although no longer novel, still stir up an easy feeling of wonder when paired with Vertov’s images—unstaged, everyday vignettes, in settings ranging from the city street to the movie house. Split screen and double exposure create kaleidoscopic cityscapes and action-filled visual collages; slow motion grants athletic feats awe-inspiring clarity; stop motion animates a movie camera, extending its legs to totter around the screen before settling down to the ground like a dog to sleep.
Yet the defining stance of Vertov’s career—and equally the conceptual impulse that brings it into dialogue with Wirth-Davis’s work—was his antipathy to cinematic narrative conventions. Part of the core cohort associated with the seminal period of Soviet cinema—alongside the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin—Vertov’s first filmmaking experience came producing newsreel propaganda in support of the Red forces during the Russian Civil War, a practice that continued following the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. In ’22 and ’23, Vertov published a series of manifestos, calling for a revolutionary cinema to match the nation’s new social order: one purged of “foreign matter—of music, literature, and theater.” This fundamentally socialist project advocated a specific model of documentary filmmaking, termed “Kino-eye” by Vertov and the other members of the “Council of Three” (Vertov’s wife, the film editor Elizaveta Svilova, and his cameraman brother Mikhail Kaufman). Rejecting the narrative and psychological forms inherited from literary precedent, with Kino-eye Vertov sought to create a more perfect record of real life—a goal he considered only possible through the medium of film, with its capacity for capturing the lived moments of regular citizens from across the Soviet state.
“Kino-eye plunges into the seeming chaos of life to find in life itself the response to an assigned theme,” Vertov wrote in the 1929 essay “From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye.” “To find the resultant force amongst the million phenomena related to the given theme. To edit; to wrest, through the camera, whatever is most typical, most useful, from life; to organize the film pieces wrested from life into a meaningful rhythmic visual order, a meaningful visual phrase, an essence of ‘I see.’” In the wide-eyed early years of cinema, this goal was more than symbolic. In “WE: Variant of a Manifesto,” published in 1922, the “kinoks”—as Kino-eye’s acolytes referred to themselves—stated a lofty intention: finding a “film scale” by which to “organiz[e] the necessary movements of objects in space as a rhythmical artistic whole.”
While the kinoks arguably never realized such a scale, Man with a Movie Camera’s metered approach to montage is surely as close as they came. Vertov’s last silent feature, the film did not use the intertitles that were typical of the era, fully committing itself to a steady visual rhythm that suggests nearly beat-by-beat tracking for a would-be accompanist (indeed, live accompaniment was entirely the norm in this era of silent film). Funded by the state-sponsored Ukrainian film studio VUFKO and shot in various cities throughout the Soviet republics, the film depicts a day in the life of the proletariat denizens of the newly created state, Vertov’s fast-paced editing careening from setting to setting according to free-associative symbolic or visual links. Thus, a scene of a shampoo bath in a hair salon abruptly cuts to a woman washing laundry outdoors in a tub. This transitions to a shot of the lathered neck of a barbershop patron before the barber’s straight razor is replaced by an axe-blade being sharpened in close-up on a stone wheel. The images are deliberately quotidian, dated by their time and place, but striking in their naturalism (the kinoks placed a premium on realism in their filmed images, employing techniques ranging from a hidden camera to subject distraction to catch their “players” unawares). Athletes in action, crowds milling about in the street, bathers lazing casually along the seashore. Even as his subjects approach more existentially weighty territory—with stops in marriage and divorce courts; footage of a young man being loaded into an ambulance, seemingly mortally injured; even an onscreen birth—Vertov’s evasion of narrative and his and Svilova’s dynamic approach in the editing room retain the flesh-and-blood realism of the lives depicted on screen, the clumsy novelty and indelible hopefulness of a swiftly modernizing world.
If Dziga Vertov imagined a cinema for the future, that future is assuredly Spencer Wirth-Davis’s present. Though the political promise of the Soviet Union slowly devolved, leading to its dissolution in 1991, Vertov’s radical aesthetic vision proved prescient of contemporary trends in art and technology—particularly in Big Cats’s chosen field of hip-hop.
Hip-hop has always been a technology-driven musical genre. One finds its origins in the manual vinyl effects of dance party DJs in 1970s Bronx, New York, who employed twin turntables to blend and extend the drum breaks in funk, R&B, and disco records. With the introduction of samplers, drum machines, and increasingly sophisticated scratching and mixing techniques, hip-hop production quickly evolved from this party scene into a coherent genre in its own right, characterized by its complexly layered sonic collages. More recently, popular access to the internet, coupled with the widespread availability of laptop production software, have made it increasingly easy for artists to make and release music, letting seemingly niche acts like Odd Future and Lil B (among so many others) gain a toehold in the musical mainstream.
Big Cats’s transformation from hip-hop fan to working producer follows a similar trajectory. Though he had studied music from a young age—playing the bass in youth orchestras and jazz bands from age nine through high school—Wirth-Davis’s interests began to shift when he discovered hip-hop in his early teens, initially through the Bay Area turntablist group Invisibl Skratch Piklz, which he found on the internet. Piqued by the group’s sound, he began to explore the hip-hop community that had quietly started to gestate in the Twin Cities during the ’90s and early 2000s, centered on the Rhymesayers Entertainment record label. Immediately interested in the craft of turntablism, Wirth-Davis found inspiration in locals like DJ Abilities and his various emcee affiliates (Eyedea, Slug, et al). It was out of this creative community that Wirth-Davis’s first major hip-hop project, The Tribe & Big Cats!, took shape. Having graduated from the turntable set to the MPC, Wirth-Davis teamed up with local rapper TruthBe Told to put out a series of releases in 2010 and ’11 that coupled lush samples with nimble, biographical raps.
Throughout his affiliation with The Tribe & Big Cats!, Wirth-Davis maintained a traditional approach to production, in which short clips of music are lifted from other artists’ records and looped to create a repeating musical pattern, complemented by drum tracks and instrumentals. But when he was named the recipient of a sizable McKnight Artist Fellowship in 2011, he chose a different technique for the resulting record, For My Mother, released the following year. Tapping into his background in classical music and jazz, Wirth-Davis wrote a series of original compositions, which were then recorded in studio sessions involving more than a dozen musicians on live instruments. Approaching the resulting masters as he would another artist’s record, Wirth-Davis assembled the final album from samples extracted from these studio sessions. The final work inhabited a space of conceptual tension, with its deliberate composition and instrumentation process yielding a mass of material that was immediately put under the blade, becoming the raw ingredients of software-assembled electronic loops. It’s a process he has since repeated, both for solo projects and collaborations with rappers Toki Wright and Homeless, with an increasing emphasis on organic, improvised instrumentation, rather than the more structured—and more expensive—studio sessions of For My Mother.
“This process, once I did it, made a lot more sense for me. Having a background as a musician, knowing and working with a lot of musicians, this actually ended up giving me a lot more freedom than sampling other people’s work,” Big Cats said before a recent gig at First Avenue’s 7th St. Entry, opening for D.C.-based rapper Oddisee.
“If I have 30 minutes of sample material to pull from that’s all in the same vein or around the same idea, that gives me a lot more to work with than if I have these three seconds that I’m going to pull from a record,” he added.
Out of these sessions, featuring a fairly stable roster of musicians, including Eric Mayson, Lydia Liza, Nelson Devereaux, and Miguel Hurtado, Big Cats builds instrumentals that are both atmospheric and percussive, naturally suited to scoring a film (especially one as saturated with the mechanical rhythms of industry and transportation as Man with a Movie Camera). Today, Wirth-Davis’s sound is as indebted to the classical, jazz, and rock music he studied and played growing up as it is to the hip-hop culture he discovered as a teenager. Noting the repetitive quality inherent to classically sampled hip-hop production, Wirth-Davis aspires to make sampled music of a greater tonal range than is typical of the genre, creating soundscapes that match the sonic peaks and valleys of a film score. Samples drop in and out of the mix with regularity, and his music is stretched temporally, relative to most hip-hop production: its emotional peaks and valleys arriving minutes apart, rather than landing repeatedly within a sample that stretches for only a few seconds before it is looped.
“It’s okay to have quieter moments and it’s okay to have moments where there’s not necessarily a lot going on. But then to couple that with really loud, in your face, bass-heavy, energetic moments,” Wirth-Davis said. “Watching a film, you’re going to have moments where the music is barely there, and it’s just a bed under whatever’s happening. And then you’re going to have moments where the music really needs to accent whatever’s happening in that scene.”
While for Wirth-Davis, this method has more to do with function than theory, his experimentation with sampling processes provides an interesting contemporary counterpart to Vertov’s Kino-eye, a conceptual stance that championed authenticity in an art medium built upon a foundation of illusion. Vertov’s film craft strategy was rooted in the voracious documentation of “unstaged” life, an amassing of exhibits for eventual deployment in the examination of an “assigned theme,” a topic to be approached through direct examples—a sort of visual sampling—which, when strategically compiled through effect and editing, create a rhythmic approximation of a thing with its own visual logic. Big Cats’s plan for his Man with a Movie Camera score is strikingly similar: acclimate to the mood and rhythm of the film, assemble his team of studio improvisers, and, finally, write and experiment his way to a trove of raw musical footage to be whittled down into a series of perfect loops.
What’s striking about these two artists is their peculiar, even paradoxical, commitment to the “real” in their art—the lengths to which each is willing to travel in the interest of capturing his version of truth, even as their very methods seem to undermine such a pursuit. Vertov decries the illusive conventions of narrative, but peppers his films with indulgent visual spectacle. In the sound films that he made during the latter part of his career, he advocated an “unstaged sound” to match his “unstaged cinema,” lugging audio recording equipment into the field along with his cameras to capture the true sounds of his socialist subjects. Yet he made no argument as to coupling that sound with the onscreen image, allowing for both synchronous and asynchronous audiovisual pairings—the latter a jarring interruption to cinema’s seemingly objective eye. Meanwhile, Big Cats places a premium on improvisation and instrumentation in a genre built on the artificial repetition of extant material, building electronic tracks out of live improvisation, only to take them apart again in largely unrehearsed concerts featuring a set of musicians endlessly reimagining their own sampled selves. He chooses the total freedom of composition, yet remains loyal to the stylistic and sonic tropes of vinyl sampling (preferring, for example, to sample full band mixes, rather than single instruments, to retain the accidental “artifacts” that arrive as passengers of a sampled melody or drum part—a traditional, but now unnecessary, textural quality of classic hip-hop production).
These may seem like impossible positions to assimilate, and perhaps they are. Yet, in a cultural landscape where musical pitch-correction technology serves to distort vocals rather than polish them and the source of record of our contemporary social lives comes with a built-in set of artificial photo filters, their work strikes a transcendent tone. In a world where parole officers play drug lords on wax and our children’s most vivid coming of age narratives play out in picturebook tableaux, one finds terms like “real” and “artificial” to be equally apt descriptors of the same phenomena.
On August 22, Big Cats and company will improvise their way through an unrepeatable series of repeated loops, one of an infinite set of variations on a composed score that will only ever exist live. An unstaged event—as Vertov would have it.
Considering its status as a founding document of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural phenomena, it would be easy to forget Wild Style’s origins in the high art ferment of New York’s 1980s Downtown scene. Sampled and interpolated for decades by everyone from “conscious” rap standard bearers Black Star to commercial giants like the […]
Considering its status as a founding document of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural phenomena, it would be easy to forget Wild Style’s origins in the high art ferment of New York’s 1980s Downtown scene. Sampled and interpolated for decades by everyone from “conscious” rap standard bearers Black Star to commercial giants like the Beastie Boys, Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film—which screens in the Walker Cinema April 30 as part of the series Downtown New York: 1970s and 1980s Art and Film—serves as a creation myth for a culture that reconfigured popular aesthetics and birthed one of the most ubiquitous musical styles in the world. Yet both project and filmmaker display deep roots in a particular cinematic moment, when consumer-grade technology democratized filmmaking craft and a group of DIY Manhattan artists set out to depict their world.
During the 1970s and ’80s, low rents in the historically working-class neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan attracted artists of all stripes, generating punk, New Wave, an innovative loft performance scene, and the first establishment-vetted street art. Alongside these innovations in the fields of music and the plastic arts came a renewed interest among artists in filmmaking. This group included Amos Poe, Vivienne Dick, James Nares, Lizzie Borden, and Ericka Beckman, among others. With the advent of cheap, single-system Super 8 cameras—or, in Ahearn’s case, a 16mm Bolex—many of these artists, frequently with no formal filmmaking training, found themselves able to make feature-length, narrative films with minimal crew and a miniscule budget. In general, these films weren’t intended for large-scale distribution, but rather peer review, starring minor celebrities from the local art scene and shown in independent venues like the New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place.
In her book The (Moving) Pictures Generation: The Cinematic Impulse in Downtown New York Art and Film, Vera Dika traces a loose movement towards exploring the “cinematic” among the practices of several artists working within the context of “Downtown New York” starting in the ’70s. Dika primarily situates these artists’ work in response to that of Andy Warhol—whose films (notably the Screen Tests shot between 1964 and 1966) appropriate Hollywood tropes to their own ends—and the formal experiments of the mid-century avant-garde. While many of the artists working in the Downtown scene borrowed from Warhol’s parody and appropriation, as well as the practical and critical examples of the avant-garde, this new generation was less interested in critiquing the pop ideologies promoted on TV and film or engaging in postmodern deconstructions of film medium and practice. Rather, as Dika contends, the Downtown filmmakers’ project is one of “reanimation” or “return,” in which “cinematic concerns are readdressed, and Warhol’s work, as well as that of other pertinent artists, is often reevaluated or critiqued.” The Downtown artists of the ’70s and ’80s are notable for their move away from avant-garde abstraction and towards representative images, with a widespread re-engagement with narrative—as if, having spied the limits of the confrontational, conceptual work of the preceding generation, they felt compelled to submit these very reference points to the same spirit of scrutiny in which they were made. The resulting films are tongue-in-cheek and abrasively meta—the product of the same culture that birthed punk and its progeny—bearing layered references to previous film movements that often spill into humorous, chaotic parody.
Ahearn, who moved to New York City in 1973 to participate in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Studio Program, was a singular presence within this ironic, even antagonistic milieu, a sincere and inquisitive cultural explorer who was deeply familiar with, yet skeptical of, the Downtown scene. Like many of his contemporaries, Ahearn was inspired by the DIY ethic and palpably durational quality of early Warhol. Yet, his feature films marked a strong departure from contemporary projects, both in his embrace of non-ironic narrative and his willingness to take the camera outside the insular world of Manhattan art, which he described as “a kind of apartheid.”
In the late ’70s, Ahearn became involved in the artists’ group Collaborative Projects (or, simply, Colab), a loose collection of artists with a shared interest in political and activist art. As part of Colab, Ahearn helped produce All Color News, a reportage program made in a cinéma vérité style that broadcast images from the New York streets over public access TV. This kind of experimentation soon led him onto the turf of his Wild Style star Lee Quinones: the Alfred E. Smith Houses, where he would shoot 16mm films of residential life and return a week later to project them on the walls of the project. When a group of neighborhood kids asked him to make a kung fu movie based around the martial arts school where they studied, Ahearn happily agreed, initiating an ad hoc community collaboration that would result in his first feature: The Deadly Art of Survival (1979).
“It wasn’t a political process in the sense that we were joining political parties and going to protests. But it was definitely stepping outside the art world and making things independently that in some way reflected the outside world,” Ahearn told me. “[This] later came to things like the Real Estate Show or the Times Square Show, which combined aspects of art-making with ideas about opening up the subject matter and the venue and the audience for art, which is something I was very interested in doing.”
It was at the Times Square Art Show, a huge 1980 exhibition organized by Colab, that the seeds for Wild Style were initially planted. Intrigued by the posters for The Deadly Art of Survival that he’d seen around town, Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite)—the graffiti artist, rapper, and general Downtown scenester who would go on to produce and co-star in Wild Style—introduced himself to Ahearn and mentioned his desire to make a film that combined the graffiti scene with the culture of rap, breakdance, and DJ work that was blossoming in the South Bronx. A Brooklyn native, Brathwaite had already begun to cultivate connections within the hip-hop world, including a friendship with the graffiti artist Quinones (whom Ahearn admired, but had met only briefly), and over the following year, he and Ahearn immersed themselves in this culture, attending hip-hop parties in the Bronx and getting to know the people and places that would eventually populate their film. Shot in 1981 and edited over the following two years, Wild Style received a nationwide release—the exception among the early Downtown film oeuvre—in November of 1983.
Although it is commonly regarded as a sort of time capsule, in addition to its documentary riches—lengthy performances by Cold Crush Bros and Grandmaster Flash, breakdancing from the Rock Steady Crew, graffiti footage from the train-bombing renaissance of the early street scene—Wild Style also offers a coherent, if somewhat itinerant, story, one that displays a striking prescience regarding the themes that would define the film’s legacy. Quinones—already somewhat known in the gallery world, having shown at White Columns in New York and Galleria La Medusa in Rome—plays a graffiti writer with the tag name Zoro, an outlaw of the South Bronx street scene, equally skeptical of his peers—led by an estranged love interest (played by the graffiti writer Lady Pink)—and the various representatives of the high art world who seek to promote (and perhaps exploit) his talent. These tentative encounters with fame and fortune make up the film’s narrative backbone, and in the outdoor concert that serves as the film’s climax—performed on a stage decorated with a giant Zoro mural—Ahearn offers an alternative to the potentially problematic assimilation of street culture into the artistic mainstream.
“What I was trying to do in the movie is to create a series of audiences,” Ahearn said: affluent art collectors at a Manhattan party, a genuinely interested, if slightly clueless, journalist researching the graffiti scene (played by Downtown film veteran Patti Astor), and the mostly black and Latino crowds who gather for the community concert at the end. “I was trying to have [Lee] express the idea that through hip-hop and graffiti there was a transformation of communities. And that that was a really positive thing.”
Over the following decade, the fate of both Wild Style and the hip-hop culture it so lovingly depicted was decidedly less utopian than how Ahearn had envisioned it. Breakdancing, fueled by international exposure to Wild Style and subsequent films including Style Wars (1983), experienced a fad period in the mid-’80s, but faded from the spotlight. While some graffiti artists—among them Quinones and Lady Pink—built lasting careers, the era’s true stars were Downtown artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring who incorporated tropes of street graffiti into a conceptual practice firmly rooted in existing fine arts narratives. Meanwhile, buoyed by acts like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys, hip-hop music marked a steady ascent towards the pop status it retains to this day, Wild Style’s pioneers largely forgotten by the grim logic of an increasingly profitable industry. Meanwhile, Ahearn’s film—which failed to garner a significant audience outside of New York—faded from the cultural memory without a home video release. For the director, the rest of the decade is epitomized by the fate of Keef Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), a founding member of the highly influential Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who died in relative obscurity in 1989 after years of crack addiction.
But true to DJ culture’s tendency to recycle and repurpose, Wild Style’s story was far from over. At the start of the 1990s, references to the film began to reappear in rap music. Most notable among these is “Genesis,” the opening track of Nas’s Illmatic record, widely considered one of the best rap albums of all time. Sampling DJ Grand Wizard Theodore’s “Subway Theme” from the Wild Style soundtrack and featuring dialogue from the film, Nas’s biblically-titled introduction cemented Ahearn’s modest film within the origin story of what is arguably the most influential musical genre today. In the end, hip-hop saves itself.
In March 2016, a new independent movie theater opened its doors on New York City’s Lower East Side with two films from the Walker Art Center’s collection among its initial screenings. A two-screen cinema complemented by a restaurant, candy shop, and bookstore, Metrograph will present a wide palette of curated selections—from French New Wave to American […]
In March 2016, a new independent movie theater opened its doors on New York City’s Lower East Side with two films from the Walker Art Center’s collection among its initial screenings. A two-screen cinema complemented by a restaurant, candy shop, and bookstore, Metrograph will present a wide palette of curated selections—from French New Wave to American exploitation and classic documentary—alongside first-run screenings of new independent and foreign titles. Appearing in the the new theater’s inaugural program are two prints from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection: William Klein’s Broadway by Light (1958) and The French (1982).
The Walker’s 35mm print of Broadway by Light preceded Metrograph’s screenings of Taxi Driver last month as part of a metatextual series called “Surrender to the Screen,” which highlighted works depicting the act of film-going. Klein’s debut effort in the medium, Broadway by Light is a 12-minute sequence of filmic verse that takes as its subject the electrified light displays of its eponymous locale: theater marquees (bearing titles like Winchester ’73 and Four Boys and Gun), scrolling news tickers, sparkling cola billboards. Paired with Maurice Le Roux’s semi-dissonant, staccato score, the director cycles through these glowing icons of urban nightlife at a rhythm that is both mesmerizing and somewhat abrasive.
Klein—a New York native who has lived in Paris for the past half-century—made Broadway by Light soon after the publication of his photography book Life is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, and comparisons between the two works abound. Life is Good stood out, in 1956, for its blunt, impressionistic style. Featuring unconventional framing and intense close-ups, Klein’s dynamic, frequently blurry New York street scenes evoke the frenetic pace of city living. Broadway by Light is a similarly visceral affair, employing extreme zooms, overlaid images, and reflected light to create a kaleidoscopic light play. Considered by many—including Klein himself—to be the first film of the pop art movement, Broadway by Light levels a critique at the baroque excesses of American marketing culture, while unabashedly indulging in its seductive vocabulary. Though an American expatriate and effective satirist, Klein is no scold. He doesn’t begrudge the viewer the pleasures of the screen, but instead places these fantasies in context—as the film comes to a close, Broadway’s winking displays are obliterated by the greatest light show of all: the rising sun.
In the years following Broadway by Light, Klein transitioned to feature-length films—many documentaries, but also several narrative works firmly planted in the satirical realm. It is for his 1969 film portrait Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (later re-titled Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee) that Klein is likely best known. Always adept at gaining access to exclusive subjects—according to the filmmaker, it was a casual encounter with Malcolm X that paved the way for his extensive relationship with Ali—Klein received free rein to film the French Open tennis tournament in 1981. Fascinated by the tournament scenes not readily available to the broadcast viewer, for The French—a 16mm print of which Metrograph has on loan from the Walker—Klein took his camera into the locker rooms, broadcast booths, and banquet halls of the Stade Roland Garros athletic complex in Paris, amassing piles of footage over the course of the two-week tournament.
In today’s corporatized sports world, it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker receiving this kind of access. Interactions between players and the media are contractually micromanaged to protect team and league brands and filtered through a hegemonic linguistics of cliched optimism. Pro sports’ culture of platitudes has achieved such ubiquity that when a player departs from the expected script—as Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch famously did in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIX—it makes national headlines. Viewed from this contemporary context, the utter naturalness of Klein’s backstage vignettes feels, paradoxically, almost unreal: men’s runner-up Ivan Lendl’s bashful refusal to undress, following a match, until Klein’s cameras are shut off; Chris Evert (women’s #1) and Virginia Ruzici (#5) crammed side-by-side onto a players’ lounge easy chair, giggling at the clownish antics of the unseeded Romanian Ilie Năstase before their brutal head-to-head match (which Evert handily won in two sets).
This is part of what makes The French—which screen April 29–30, as part of Metrograph’s “Welcome to Metrograph: A to Z” series—such a riveting sports documentary. Rather than falling back on conventional journalistic techniques (Klein conducts almost no interviews), the director endeavors to disappear into his environment. In line with the basic principles of contemporaneous documentary movements like cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema, Klein eschews any real thesis, instead hopscotching between the dozens of mini-narratives his camera happens to find: a ball boy triumphantly snatching Björn Borg’s racquet in the moments following his men’s tournament winner, an ongoing spat between all-time great John McEnroe and a referee, an awkward birthday party for women’s three seed Andrea Jaeger.
Yet, despite the cerebral quality of Klein’s immersive, gonzo-adjacent approach, the director doesn’t shy away from the drama inherent to his favorite sport. In addition to being an eye-opening look into the off-court world of pro tennis, The French is also as a generous, if incomplete, documentation of the 1981 tournament, proceeding chronologically through long stretches of match coverage, which the director cleverly pairs with live commentary—from both the broadcast booth and the stands—and dutiful shots of the scoreboard. Klein’s love for the sport is palpable, and it’s only in play that he allows himself a more hands-on, affective approach, complete with Wes Anderson–level frames/second numbers and gratuitous shots of the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Both a close examination of the bureaucratic and promotional systems that buttress the drama unfolding on court and a sincere tribute to a handful of incredible athletes, The French is a startlingly original take on the world of professional tennis. Yet, alongside Broadway by Light, it has failed to find a lasting audience. Unlike Klein’s narrative films, which were released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in 2008, both of the director’s works showing at Metrograph this spring are not readily available for home viewing. Through this collaboration, these vividly rendered, yet unsung titles from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection will reach audiences in what promises to become a major hub of New York independent film culture.
For Midwestern cinephiles unable to make it to the Metrograph screenings, The French can be watched in its entirety in the Walker’s Mediatheque screening room during regular museum hours.
Peter L. Galison and Robb Moss have a nose for the contemporary world’s most difficult questions. Following their 2008 documentary Secrecy, which endeavored to shine a light into the obscure world of classified government secrets, Galison and Moss’s new film, Containment, about nuclear waste storage, may set itself an even more ambitious task. With a hundred million […]
Peter L. Galison and Robb Moss have a nose for the contemporary world’s most difficult questions. Following their 2008 documentary Secrecy, which endeavored to shine a light into the obscure world of classified government secrets, Galison and Moss’s new film, Containment, about nuclear waste storage, may set itself an even more ambitious task. With a hundred million gallons of radioactive waste remaining from the Cold War arms race, and more being generated every year, the unsolved problem of safely storing these materials will have ramifications that stretch tens—and even hundreds—of millennia into the future. Splitting time between nuclear production and storage sites in South Carolina and New Mexico, and the regions surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan (which suffered a meltdown in 2011), Containment explores the problems—both practical and ethical—presented by the storage of hazardous waste. Approaching the topic from scientific, political, and civilian perspectives, Containment couples expert analysis with on-the-ground footage from the world’s nuclear hot spots to show both the gargantuan logistical challenges and moral urgency of this difficult issue.
Galison and Moss spoke with Crosscuts about collaborative filmmaking, “crazed future historians,” and their shared love of conceptual self-sabotage. Containment screens in the Walker Cinema on Thursday, March 17, as part of the Cinema of Urgency series.
What can you tell us about Containment’s inception? What originally drew you to this story?
Peter L. Galison: Robb and I had been collaborating for a decade—first, in teaching a course, bringing student filmmakers into scientific laboratories to think about the way the real work of technology, medicine, and science could be put on film. Then, finishing in 2008, we co-directed Secrecy, a feature documentary about the the moral, political, and technological controversies surrounding national security secrecy. Containment grew first out of work I was doing (in print) on the strange new lands that are at once our wild, biodiverse landscapes, and at the same time some of our most radiologically contaminated. I was utterly taken aback by the Department of Energy’s drive to mark one of these sites to warn the future against digging—for a period of 10,000 years. Robb and I began our discussions around this extraordinary, tragic, imaginative project.
Robb Moss: For me, the sheer fun of teaching with Peter led me to want to make a film with him, and we made Secrecy. Secrecy, of course, is a terrible idea for a film; there is almost nothing to see, and no one wants to talk to you. Filmmakers often start with a visual idea, something you can point the camera at, but in Secrecy there was almost no in-the-world material for the camera to see. As a way of imagining this secret world, we thought we might want to include animation into the mix and began working with the wonderful animator, Ruth Lingford. Secrecy premiered at Sundance early in 2008 and showed at the Walker later that year. We returned to use animation in a more extensive way in Containment.
Containment splits its focus between the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, and the area surrounding the former Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. What led you to choose these three locations?
Galison: We began with our focus squarely on the WIPP site. It was the only open, licensed, deep underground nuclear repository, and it was for that burial ground that the far-future markers had been designed. Then we thought the story really had to take into account the source of this waste: the detritus of nuclear weapons production that had taken place over decades at places like the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Japan’s triple disaster—earthquake, tsunami, meltdowns—hit in March 2011, while we were already filming. Soon after that, we realized we had to confront the massive loss of nuclear containment that ensued, but it took two years or so before we were in a position to travel to Fukushima. But then we saw a way to finish the film around these three sites: the production of nuclear materials, the burial of this waste, and the catastrophic release, in the Japanese accident, of materials that left waste strewn over the land.
Moss: It was incredibly difficult to gain access to these three sites, but it was extraordinary to be at each of them. Being underground at WIPP was both beautiful and chilling: underground tunnels filled with miners excavating caverns in the salt (the location of the WIPP site was chosen because the salt was still intact—and therefore perhaps stable—after having been deposited some 250 million years ago). We filmed huge barrels of nuclear waste as they were emplaced in these caverns. Utterly sci-fi. At SRS, we walked over huge mounds of underground containers, called tank farms, consisting of 51 one-million gallon tanks filled with 39 million gallons of nuclear waste.
In addition to policymakers and experts in various nuclear fields, the film is peppered with interview subjects who bring more of a layperson’s sensibility to the topics at hand. How did you go about finding voices in the communities affected by these issues? What kinds of stories were you looking for?
Galison: From early on we wanted the film to get at the lives people lived around the waste. We wanted to know not only what the waste was and how it was managed, but also what life was like for someone who lived and worked with these materials on his or her mind. We talked and wandered with preachers and miners, cattlemen and politicians, housewives and scientists. We were less interested in polemics for or against nuclear power and more focused on people who lived and worked in and around these sites.
Moss: In particular, we were interested in the experiences of those who had lived around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants before the radioactive releases. Watching them move about in their former, now radioactive homes, was both sad and unnerving.
You come from very different backgrounds academically—Peter, as an expert on the history of science, and Robb, with more experience as a filmmaker. Describe the collaborative process on this project. Did you find yourselves occupying distinctive roles, or was there quite a bit of overlap?
Galison: From the very beginning of our collaboration, we have worked to avoid separating roles. We both think about the big ideas of the film, we both get into the details of transitions, silences, music, animation, archives. We are both in the field at every shoot. Essential, truly essential, to the whole of our work is a third member of our team: our editor Chyld King. Many hours each week—over the many years of these two films (Secrecy and Containment)—we have shared an edit room: experimenting with different cuts, looking for ways to elicit the particularity of characters and places. It is one of the great privileges of my life that I’ve been able to work with Robb and Chyld over these last years.
You’ve talked about how on both Containment and Secrecy you set out to, in a sense, film the “unfilmable”—classified information in Secrecy and both invisible radioactive contamination and an unknowable future in Containment. What have these projects taught you about representing intangibles on film?
Galison: We have worked so hard to bring the invisible into visibility because we are convinced that unseeable abstractions are easy to let slide. If secrecy is unimaginable, if nuclear waste is so utterly out of our perceptual range, they vanish from our national awareness. This aim has brought us to unexpected places in our filmmaking: to deepening use of animation and graphic novel sequences, for example; to the use of artworks integrated into film; to back and forth between observational, site-specific filming with soundstage recording of interviews. I should say we both hugely enjoy the challenge of finding ways to put the imperceptible onto the screen.
Moss: In both films we dug ourselves into very deep conceptual holes that we had to dig our way out of. This meant years of trial and error as we found our way through the material. This is both the fun and agony of filmmaking.
Do you each have a favorite futurist scenario from your research into the WIPP site long-term nuclear waste warning plans? Some of them get pretty zany.
Galison: The scenarios sure did get zany—the futurists themselves were so astounded by the difficulty of their 10,000-year task that they slid into the absurd. One particular scenario that didn’t make it into the film in any detail involved a cult called “the Markuhnians” (a cross between Herbert Marcuse and Thomas S. Kuhn). The idea that crazed future historians of science—ignoring absolute scientific truth and hunting for lost mystic scrolls—might be responsible for the catastrophic release of nuclear materials particularly warmed my historian of science soul.
Moss: I am still partial to the Nickey Nuke scenario: a nuclear waste theme park that has families coming to see Nickey Nuke for 10,000 years, one that through endless fun, continuously transmits the warning not to dig into the waste. Amazing.
Ultimately, your film seems to raise a lot more questions than it answers. How optimistic are you about our future as it relates to the containment of nuclear waste? What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Moss: In some ways our film functions like the warning markers that we discuss in the film, and will probably fail for similar reasons. Perhaps we can raise some awareness of these issues in the present, and perhaps that is all we can do.
Galison: Is there hope? In a way I think the film, even the long-shot hope that we can warn the far-distant future, is an act of extraordinary hopefulness. True, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, there are some tasks that are both necessary and impossible. Try to speak to a time nearly twice as far from us [in the future] as Stonehenge is in the past? How remarkable. We—who can barely plan beyond a fiscal quarter or a two-, four-, or six-year election cycle—trying for once to think about our planet in the long run. Do I think this or that particular scheme is a surefire method? Of course not. But pressured to think beyond the tiny radius of our individual lives, we might just create a precedent for caring about the planet that will mean something for those who follow.
For her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao turned her camera on the beautiful but impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Anchored by two young leads (Jashaun St. John and John Reddy) who bring to life a tender brother-sister relationship, Zhao’s cast was largely culled from within Pine Ridge, blurring […]
For her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao turned her camera on the beautiful but impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Anchored by two young leads (Jashaun St. John and John Reddy) who bring to life a tender brother-sister relationship, Zhao’s cast was largely culled from within Pine Ridge, blurring the line between character and actor. Deploying an experimental, collaborative writing approach that drew heavily on the lives and personalities of the cast members, Zhao’s semi-improvised shoot yielded 100 hours of footage, which the director condensed and organized around the story of a young Oglala Lakota man’s plans to leave the reservation. Patient and respectful, even in its unflinching depiction of the crime and alcoholism that plague the community, this evocative, lyrical film explores the complicated relationships its subjects have with their troubled home.
In her interview with Crosscuts, Zhao talks about her DIY approach to the shoot, screening the film on Pine Ridge, and how to practice responsible filmmaking as a cultural outsider. Songs My Brothers Taught Me will screen in the Walker Cinema March 11–13.
I understand your first introduction to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation came through your course work as a political science student at Mount Holyoke College. This is obviously a place with a very potent political and cultural history. What expectations did you have when you first went to Pine Ridge, and what did you find when you got there?
I learned very little about Pine Ridge when I was in college studying politics. I was curious about Pine Ridge, about reservation life, and about the American West. So I went, and I really only learned about the place once I spent time there. I had no idea what to expect, but I found a world very different than my life back in New York City. I knew I desperately wanted to learn more about it.
As late as the summer of 2013, you had a polished, full-length script for a film set on Pine Ridge called Lee. But when financial realities made it impossible to proceed with the project until the following year, you decided to ditch the script and start shooting immediately, working on a much smaller budget with only a film treatment. Beyond obvious things like plot and character, how would this project have been different if funding hadn’t been a problem?
It would be a more traditional narrative story, more fast-paced, but it wouldn’t be as authentic. Even before funding fell through, I was feeling trapped by the script. Once we had nothing—no money, no pressure, almost no crew—we had to go with truth in front of the camera. Because truth was all we could afford. My job was to capture authentic moments Pine Ridge and my cast were giving me and try to navigate a story around it.
I’ve read that you mined your actors’ real lives to construct the film’s narrative, such as in the scene where Jashaun returns to the site of her father’s death, filmed at the actress’s actual home, which had unexpectedly burned down during production. You’ve said John Reddy even considers his character to be about 80 percent actually him. How did this deliberate blending of fiction and biography change the stakes of the film for you? Would you use this strategy again on your next film?
This was an important method specifically for Songs. One, because we had no money to do anything else. Two, because, by staying close to real life, I can help myself, an outsider, to make a film from inside. I’ll definitely use what I’ve learned for my future projects.
I’m intrigued by Eléonore Hendricks’s character, Angie. If I’m reading her correctly, she’s one of the story’s only characters not originally from Pine Ridge; when we first meet her, she’s pointing a camera at your co-lead, Johnny Winters. Was your own position as an outsider to Pine Ridge something you consciously chose to explore in this film? Was Angie a locus of this kind of thematic work?
Yes. Angie was, like myself, one of the many photographers, filmmakers, and journalists who pointed their lens towards the reservation. The lucky ones ended up learning something about themselves along the way. She left in the end, like all of us did. It was those who remained [that] we celebrate in this film.
Following stops at Sundance and Cannes, Songs My Brothers Taught Me made its premiere on Pine Ridge this past summer. What kinds of reactions did you get from members of that community?
A lot more laughter. They got the jokes more. People generally really enjoyed it. I had parents coming up to me to say that it was hard for them to watch at some point, because it reminded them that they need to take more care of their young ones. There were good conversations afterwards. I can’t wait for DVD/VOD, so everyone on the reservation can see it.
You’ve said you’d like to make your next film in the Midwest, as well. Do you have any ideas about the direction that project might take? What did you learn making Songs that you expect to apply to your work in the future?
I have two films in development, both set in the Midwest and also the West. I live in Colorado now. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Songs is to follow my curiosity. Because it usually leads me to the right people and places.
Nearly two decades in the making, Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began with a single conversation. After Leary announced, in the mid-1990s, that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, filmmaker Gay Dillingham organized a reunion between the writer and ’60s cultural icon and Ram Dass, author of the New Age […]
Nearly two decades in the making, Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began with a single conversation. After Leary announced, in the mid-1990s, that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, filmmaker Gay Dillingham organized a reunion between the writer and ’60s cultural icon and Ram Dass, author of the New Age spiritual tome Be Here Now (and Leary’s one-time partner), in a pioneering set of Harvard experiments on the psychological benefits of LSD. Dillingham filmed the ensuing conversation, which served as a platform for the two men to share the lessons of their disparate life journeys and discuss what awaited Leary at the end of his own. Following Leary’s death in 1996, Dillingham spent much of the subsequent 18 years researching and crafting a documentary that simultaneously serves as comprehensive biography and a bifurcated manifesto for two leading voices of the 20th century counterculture.
Dillingham spoke with us about liminal states, her inspiration in conceiving the film, and the dichotomous quality of Ram Dass and Leary’s ideas. Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary will screen in the Walker Cinema at 2 pm on Saturday, February 13, as part of the Walker’s Winter of Love celebration.
Filming for what would become Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began in 1995, yet the project wasn’t completed until nearly 20 years later. Did you have any idea the form the film would take when you organized that initial conversation between Ram Dass and Leary?
I had no idea I would spend 20 years of my life marinating on this story that covers 80 years of footage. Some things we begin with enthusiasm, but they don’t hold our interest, and some things/stories will not let us go. This project literally haunted me over time until I finished it. I knew these two characters were seminal figures in history and I was interested in their perspective on expanded consciousness and death. My original instinct as a director was guided by their idea of “set and setting.” I wanted to create an atmosphere for two old friends and psychedelic warriors to get together in a relaxed, loving setting to reminisce on the past and contemplate the eternal future, as Leary was facing the end of his life, shedding the mortal coil as his spacesuit wore out.
What made this story one that you would return to over such a long period of time?
It kept drawing me back because it spoke to the bigger questions I consistently ponder and has contemporary relevance. Deeper conversations about taboos like death and drugs interest me. Death has been an important doorway to me since I lost my bother when I was 17. I began to see how upside down we were as a culture and that it has been our undoing. Spending time in cultures that see themselves in the cycle of nature and hold life preciously because it has an end, I felt [they] did a better job at caring for each other and the earth.
How familiar were you with Ram Dass and Leary prior to beginning this film? In what ways has your understanding of these men and their ideas changed over the course of the project?
I’d seen Leary in the ’80s on his lecture circuit in his cyber-tech manifestation, promoting LSD (Leary Software Design). I was not all that impressed at the time, as I experienced Leary, the showman, not the man. I also remembered my brother, whom I adored, getting in trouble for driving 2 hours to the City one school night in 1978 to see a guy named Timothy Leary. I would later realize why he took that risk. In college, like many others, I had read Be Here Now, the so-called hippie bible written by Ram Dass.
Like most of us, I knew these men as caricatures that my media culture had fed me. So this film was largely a process of my reconciling those caricatures with the truly interesting, intelligent, humorous, loving men I met: Leary on his deathbed and Ram Dass, who is alive today, and, I’m grateful to say, my friend and teacher. Diving into all the archival footage, interviewing people about him, and knowing him personally for 20 years, I’ve witnessed the remarkable arch of his life. As John Perry Barlow says in the film, Ram Dass “is a truly wise man.” After a lifetime of practice, I witness him resting in a place of unconditional love.
In 1964, Leary, Ram Dass (then known as Richard Alpert), and Ralph Metzner published The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an informative guide to psychedelic drug use based on Tibetan religious beliefs about the passage from one incarnation to the next. What parallels did Leary and Ram Dass see between tripping and the death process?
This is one of the main reasons I was attracted to these men. Their book and their work was meant to help people practice ego death or rather to sense that we are more than our bodies, which helps relieve much of the anxiety around death.
You have described the film as an “archetypal conversation” between the heart and the mind (as epitomized by Ram Dass and Leary, respectively). While their relationship is clearly a loving one, their conversation seems to at times border on argument. Do you understand the two men’s ideas to be at odds or complementary?
I have to say both, which is why I chose the symbol of the yin yang. It’s used to describe two primal, opposing, but complementary, forces found in all things in the universe. As complementary, interdependent opposites, neither man could have impacted the culture as profoundly without the other. Each can transform into the other, and contains a seed of the other within it—hence Ram Dass has a keen mind and Leary had a big heart. I’ve experienced that life happens in relationship and we tend to forget that in the Age of the Individual. Neither of these men were as interesting to me individually as they were together. Yin and yang consume and support each other. I think that will make more sense after someone has watched the film.