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Stasis & Motion: An interview with Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek

One of the most exhilarating things about working on a new commission with moving image and sound artists is that nothing can be taken for granted. The image, the sound, the audience, the performance, the screening are all open to consideration and then reconsideration just moments up to the release. How the work is made […]

Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek's Reflectors, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artists

Reflectors, by Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek, 2015. Photo courtesy the artists

One of the most exhilarating things about working on a new commission with moving image and sound artists is that nothing can be taken for granted. The image, the sound, the audience, the performance, the screening are all open to consideration and then reconsideration just moments up to the release. How the work is made and, crucially, how the work will be presented is up for debate with each detail being scrutinized for that ultimate score. These issues are currently being unraveled by Minneapolis artists Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek, who over the last eight months have been collaborating on a new commission of Expanded Cinema for the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, to be premiered in the Walker Cinema on April 20, 2017. Stasis & Motion is an experiment in visual and acoustic space that is both a new artwork and a performance of multiple-projection coupled with live sound and music. The artists work in the sphere of Expanded Cinema, a set of principles first established in 1970 by theorist Gene Youngblood, which refers to film and video that question the traditional one-way relationship between audience and screen to incorporate the context in which they’re being watched.

We have come to see that we don’t really see, the “reality” is more within than without. The objective and the subjective are one.

–Gene Youngblood, from Expanded Cinema, 1970

In Stasis & Motion the flow of printed images through the 16mm film projectors, coupled with a live sound performance, explores new relationships at work in the environment, both physical and metaphysical, and significantly, as a paradigm for an entirely different kind of audiovisual experience: one that converges a new commission with an ambition to create a collective group consciousness. Permanent artwork and impermanent environment are at the forefront of the artists’ awareness, with the integrity of the cinematic space of upmost concern. Together with the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, Walker archives, and the events production team at the Walker, the artists have chosen to present their work along with film and sound sourced from the Walker’s holdings, referencing not only artists of general historical importance but also works influential to the artists’ particular process and outlook. This dual or referential process of creative practice in tandem with programming comprehensively demonstrates a supportive, cohesive vision, for both the artist and the space, which in turn attempts to represent the values of Expanded Cinema that are core objectives of Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek.

The film titles Tails, by Paul Shartis (1976); Alabama Departure, by Peter Bundy and Bryan Elsom (1981); and Studies in Chronovision, by Louis Hock (1975) are followed by excerpts from a recording of Deep Listening  by Pauline Oliveros that was performed in the Cowles Conservatory, in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on May 20, 1990. These titles precede the commission and will be projected/played from the projection booth. This may seem like an obvious detail, but in contrast, the newly commissioned prints will be on multiple projectors, running from the middle of the cinema space, activated by Hoolihan, with live sound on stage performed by Marks and Myslajek. The choice for projecting in the middle of the space was a crucial detail for the artists. Exposing the function and process that creates the image is significant, but additionallyand equally vitalthe cadence of the projectors’ sound creates a continuous tempo and functions somewhat like a rhythm section. By way of contrast, the sound performance is primarily a combination of free-form, arhythmic electronics and vocals; in this way, the projectors work in tandem as instruments, providing a mechanical-metrical underpinning to the live performance. Here I enjoy the fact that before Hoolihan became a filmmaker he was a drummer, and perhaps that instinct never quite disappeared.

The symbiosis of practice, process, and space is at the heart of this new commission and performance, and while it’s hard for me to say much more about the particulars of what you will hear, see, or even “feel,” Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek did find time between composing sounds, shooting film, and programming to speak about their practice, ideas and inspirations.

thumbnail_Reflectors at Mono

Reflectors, by Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Ruth Hodgins: For the event Stasis & Motion on April 20, you’re premiering a new commission together with select titles from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. What are the links between the collection and your practice? Has the curatorial process influenced you?

Sam Hoolihan, John Marks, and Crystal Myslajek: The commission relies deeply on the interconnectedness of moving image and sound; this can be felt plainly in Alabama Departure, by Peter Bundy and Bryan Elsom (1981). Further selections from the collection more subtly support the thread of interconnectivity to foundations in moving image and visual art, such as Studies in Chronovision, by Louis Hock (1975), or with sound and meditation as in the live recordings of Pauline Oliveros when she visited the Walker on multiple occasions. These choices both support and influence the commissioned work by connecting the historical with contemporary.

Hodgins: The title Stasis & Motion is a paradox. Is this opposition somehow reflected in the new commission and performance?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: It refers to tension. A liminal space between two ends of a spectrum–light and dark, sound and silence. We are shooting mainly double-perforated black-and-white reversal film. The double-perforation allows us to shoot the entire roll, then flip it and run it through the camera a second time backwards and upside-down; in field without returning to the darkroom to reel it back. Some rolls are sent through the camera a third and fourth time. This process gives us unexpected layers of images, textures, and patterns that build tones and depth in the composition similar to the structure of a musical composition. The resulting images overlap and often work against themselves, creating a simultaneous impression of stasis and motion.

Hodgins: Your practice is a combination of sound, music, live performance, film, and projection. How do you choose the materials and processes that you work with?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: In our ever-accelerating media environment, we are more and more drawn to tools and processes that force us to slow down. We are hand-processing our film and using Bolex 16mm cameras that hold about three minutes of film at a time. The cameras don’t require a battery, so we need to wind up the spring to run it, and we get about 25 seconds of shooting per “wind up.” These technological limitations undoubtedly force us to look at things in a different way, change our point of view, and dictate the final form. This technique offers a chance to surrender and lose control of the process by allowing chance to play a part.

Hodgins: You worked in this manner on the earlier projects Reflectors and City Symphony in 16mm: A New Work for Expanded Cinema. Did the different projects and venues influence the next?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: Our collaboration and these successive pieces are both sequential and granular. They’re part of a trajectory on which Stasis & Motion is our current location. Each project definitely influences the next, and each can be charted to a specific project or opportunity or presentation. City 3 was developed specifically for Northern Spark to be played continuously over eight hours, but went on to show in multiple venues and festivals. Reflectors was made for Mono No Aware in 2015, where we knew the venue, its offerings and limitations. Stasis & Motion is being created specifically for this program in the Walker Cinema space, though it will surely screen in many very different spaces in the future. Based on the live nature of our work, each project must in some way respond to the space that it is presented. This is critical to creating a platform for visceral or transformative responses from the viewer.

Hodgins: In your practice you celebrate both the materiality and immateriality of film and sound—the materiality by the process of cinema being visible, and the immateriality by creating a unique improvised event that will live in memory and expectation. Do you look for a convergence in the materiality and immateriality in your practice?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: We’re interested in creating a nonverbal visual space composed of light, sound, texture, and movement. Therefore we are exploring notions of permanence and impermanence, which to us equate to your thoughts on materiality and immateriality. The images are permanently exposed onto film, when projected they are moving, and thus we are only exposed to them temporarily, making them impermanent. The sounds are composed, presenting an opportunity for reproduction making them permanent; they are then performed live, making their experience ephemeral, thus impermanent. There is an interdependent continuity between that which is concrete and that which is fluid. Again referencing the paradox of Stasis & Motion.

Hodgins: Typically projectors and projectionist are hidden in a booth. But in this performance you’ve decided to have both exposed. Can you tell us more about that decision?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: We want the audience to have a visceral experience, similar to going to see a band. We consider the projectors to be like instruments, and as audience members we love to see the instruments in the room.

Hodgins: So, as with a band, the audience gets to see the set up and tools that you use. That is very different to experiencing moving images when the machinery is normally hidden. Does this relate to how you balancing the impact of the sound versus image in the performance?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: It is important that the film and music sit together on the same plane, that neither exists to solely “support” the other. Generally, when music and sound are used with the moving image it is to support a character-driven storyline or a language-based idea. (Most narrative-based films use music and sound to force you to feel fear, suspense, love, etc. during a particular scene or transition.) On the other end of the spectrum we see projected images used a lot to support a live band or musical performance, used as a sort of ornament or wallpaper. For this project, we’re interested in creating a space where the music and films are equally weighed, with the hope that the audience can seamlessly float their attention and engagement between the moving images and sound throughout the piece.

Hodgins: What artists, artworks, and musicians have been influential to this project?

Hoolihan, Marks, and Myslajek: The approaches of Paul Sharits, Nathaniel Dorsky, and Louis Hock, are influential.

Sharits’s Shutter Interference (1975) brings about a commitment to the complete disassociation of filmmaking with the narrative paradigm. By creating simple color fields with four 16mm projectors, this work shifts these materials into a space where media can take on a sculptural form that asks for a more physical conversation between the artwork and the viewer.

Both Nathaniel Dorsky and Louis Hock do many things that we bring into our practice, however the most important aspects refer to a process of reduction. This could be explicitly reflected in the choice of a specific movement, color, or the relationship between light and dark spaces. These simple mechanisms, stripped of other contextual meaning bring about an instinctive response where the film can be only that—the film.

Not to respect the screen as its own self-symbol is to treat film as a medium for information. It is to say that the whole absorbing mechanism of projected light–the shots, the cuts, the actors–is there only to represent a scripted idea. But film at its transformative best is not primarily a literary medium. The screen or the field of light on the wall must be alive as sculpture, while at the same time expressing the iconography within the frame. Beyond everything else, film is a screen, film is a rectangle of light, film is light sculpture in time. How does a filmmaker sculpt light in harmony with its subject matter? How can light be deeply in union with evocation? How do you construct a temporal form that continues to express nowness to the audience?

–Nathaniel Dorsky, from Devotional Cinema, 2003

Pauline Oliveros’s practice of Deep Listening has impacted our approach to both sound and image making. Basically it refers to a form of engagement or presence with our surroundings for many reasons but in our view, most importantly to become closer to our environment. To somehow locate ourselves within a system of meaning—in a deeper way than any form of socialized identity. Like meditation, whether sitting in the studio with a synthesizer and making sounds or standing behind the camera in some random place, we are ultimately working towards expanding consciousness.

Deep Listening is a form of meditation. Attention is directed to the interplay of sounds and silences or sound/silence continuum. Sound is not limited to musical or speaking sounds but is inclusive of all perceptible vibrations (sonic formations). The practice is intended to expand consciousness to the whole space/time continuum of sound/silences. Deep Listening a process that extends the listener to this continuum as well as to focus instantaneously on a single sound (engagement to targeted detail) or sequences of sound/silence.

–Pauline Oliveros, from Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, 2005

Guns, Isolation, and the Lives We Lead: Tim Sutton Discusses Dark Night

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night—screening April 14–16 in the Walker Cinema—shadows the lives of six people prior to a mass shooting in a cinema in order to open space for a critique of the culture from which mass shooting and violence is born. How does American culture encourage violence? Aiming to look beyond an overly simplistic investigation of gun culture, […]

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night 2016 Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night, 2016. Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night—screening April 14–16 in the Walker Cinemashadows the lives of six people prior to a mass shooting in a cinema in order to open space for a critique of the culture from which mass shooting and violence is born. How does American culture encourage violence? Aiming to look beyond an overly simplistic investigation of gun culture, Sutton observes the underlying effects of isolation and desensitization, and the longstanding media and entertainment bend toward violence. In a recent interview, he discussed how the film avoids politics to simply offer an observation, of  “people, the suburban landscape, and the intense power of the tools to which we all have access.”

Kelsey Bosch: What about the set of personalities portrayed in Dark Night interests you in regards to mass shooting?

Tim Sutton: The film watches people I felt made psychic sense in the landscape of a vague American suburbia. While they all add their dramatic part to the film’s story, they are archetypes of what makes up much of that environment right now—a Vet, a young immigrant, a troubled teen, skate punks, a social media addict, and an angry and confused young man who clearly should not have access to a gun. It’s a group of people connected only by their sense of disconnection to a greater community, and to a single and somewhat random event.

Bosch: One commonality between Dark Night‘s characters is the suggestion of mental instability. Is the lack of mental healthcare access a bigger problem in the United States than gun control?

Sutton: I’m not an expert on mental health issues—micro or macro—in America. I’m not an expert on gun control. The film’s essential concept is to offer a dark, observational lens on a specific corner of the culture we live in right now as an attempt to evoke in the viewer first a sense of deep dread followed by deep meditation.

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night 2016 Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night. 2016. Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Bosch: Is there any danger in typecasting your actors, who largely play a version of themselves, as potential mass shooters?

Sutton: These are real people more or less playing dramatic or nightmarish versions of themselves—the shooter included. They don’t risk typecasting because they’re just people. That’s a real mother/son relationship we’re seeing. That’s a real vet making his way back from war… Their reality feeds a greater fiction which—to me, at least—creates layers and textures of complexity, rather than any cookie cutter or stereotypical results.

Bosch: Is the kind of boredom portrayed particular to the United States? What about our culture perpetuates boredom? Is boredom dangerous?

Sutton: Idle hands… No, to me the film is not about boredom. It’s about isolation, a lack of purpose or connection, and how we as individuals and as a society are filling that void.

Bosch: There isn’t mention of hunting culture in Dark Night. Why did you stray from that sect of gun culture?

Sutton: The people who go into public places and start shooting aren’t usually hunters. They are often disturbed people looking to make their mark on the world. Hunters, or sportsman as they are often called, quite often maintain legal usage and maintenance of their firearms. The film isn’t about that subset or the political platform they might support. The film is purposefully devoid of politics. It simply observes people, the suburban landscape, and the intense power of the tools to which we all have access.

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night 2016 Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Tim Sutton’s Dark Night. 2016. Photo courtesy Cinelicious Pics

Bosch: Why focus on the lives of the characters (potential victims and shooter) prior to the mass shooting?

Sutton: Most media on this topic is about aftermath—about grief and shock and then investigation and finger-pointing and punditry. Dark Night is about the lives we lead.

Bosch: Suburbs were developed out of a desire for comfort and safety—a refuge from the violence and chaos of the inner city—how has the utopic suburb atrophied?

Sutton: I think there are likely a great many people in the suburbs living incredibly satisfying, engaging, creative lives on a number of levels. I hate to generalize. I do think that America is a culture—be it urban, suburban, or rural—that glorifies and promotes violence, that glorifies and promotes technology, and that glorifies and promotes generic urban and suburban design and development. And with all of this grand promotion comes an infinite amount of serious ramifications. Dark Night illustrates just one.

Introducing INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present

“We are in the beginning of a new era in Native cinema, a place where our ancestors are given life, our voices rise, and we return to our traditional ways of being through the lens.” —Missy Whiteman This month the Walker Cinema presents INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present, a series of films and talks, which begins with […]

Missy Whiteman’s The Coyote Way: Going Back Home, 2016. Photo credits Missy Whiteman

Missy Whiteman’s The Coyote Way: Going Back Home, 2016. Photo: Missy Whiteman

“We are in the beginning of a new era in Native cinema, a place where our ancestors are given life, our voices rise, and we return to our traditional ways of being through the lens.” —Missy Whiteman

This month the Walker Cinema presents INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers, Past and Present, a series of films and talks, which begins with a screening of The Daughter of Dawn—a silent film from 1920 featuring members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes—and culminates in a discussion with those documenting the ongoing activism surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. Filmmakers will be present throughout the run of INDIgenesis to discuss their work. INDIgenesis builds upon the legacy of the Two Rivers Native Film and Video Festival and is programmed in collaboration with Whiteman (Northern Arapaho and Kickapoo Nations), a writer, filmmaker, and digital media consultant whose films incorporate indigenous languages,teachings, and values as a means of documentation, revitalization, and preservation.

Missy Whiteman

Picture the classic western The Searchers set in Nunavut. Find yourself in the Minneapolis neighborhoods of Missy Whiteman’s newest film. Pay tribute to American Indian Movement peace warrior John Trudell, and enjoy the Pines’ music video on which he and Whiteman collaborated. Join an exploration of ancestry and language in a program of shorts, learn the Ojibwe tale of the Seven Fires Prophecy, and more.

For information about discounted tickets for individuals and groups, please contact Alison Kozberg (Alison.kozberg@walkerart.org) at least one business day before the screening.

 

The Daughter of Dawn, directed by Norbert A. Myles

Screening: March 3, 7:30 pm

“A buried American treasure.” —NPR

Shot in the summer of 1920 in southwest Oklahoma, the film features more than 300 members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes. Their personal objects were integrated into the story of two suitors vying for the affections of the Kiowa chief’s daughter. 1920, US, silent with live musical score, 87 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

Mekko, directed by Sterlin Harjo

Screening: March 4, 7:30 pm

Mekko infuses street-smart realism with Native American mysticism to create a quietly haunting portrait of fringe dwellers and castoffs.” —Hollywood Reporter

A thrilling redemption quest inflected with shades of the supernatural, Sterlin Harjo’s third feature follows a recent parolee who encounters Bill, a malevolent figure he suspects might be a shape-shifter. 2015, US, 84 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

The Searchers (Maliglutit), directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq

Screenings: March 10–11, 7:30 pm

Maliglutit never puts a foot wrong. Kunuk’s filmmaking is consistently impressive.” —Playlist

This reimagining of John Ford’s classic western of the same title, gorgeously set in Nunavut circa 1915, follows an Inuk man who searches for the invaders who destroyed his home and kidnapped his wife. Soundtrack by Tanya Tagaq. 2016, Canada, in Inuktitut with English subtitles, 94 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

Short Films Program: DNA//Memory: Storytelling and Cultural Heritage, introduced by director Lyle Corbine

Screening: March 11, 2 pm, Free

Using storytelling to address erasure and preserve traditions for future generations, these short films beautifully express filmmakers’ examinations of ancestry, language, and history. Program includes Shimásáni by Blackhorse Lowe, Anishinabemowin Nagishkodaading by Eve Lauryn-Lafountain, Shinaab by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., Smoke that Travels by Kayla Briët, Four Faces of the Moon by Amanda Strong, and I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become
by Sky Hopinka.

 

The Coyote Way: Going Back Home, introduced by director Missy Whiteman

Screening: March 16, 7:30 pm, Free

This sci-fi docu-narrative follows Charlie, who is forced to choose between joining a Native street gang or going on an epic pilgrimage. Featuring an entirely Native American cast, the film was shot in the Minneapolis neighborhoods of Phillips and Little Earth. 2016, US, 30 minutes.

Pre-Screening Conversation: Join us in the main lobby at 5 pm before the screening to explore themes and stories from Whiteman’s film through interactive activities presented by the Little Earth Arts Collective.

 

INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./ it flies. falls./], introduced by directors Zack and Adam Khalil

Screenings: March 17, 6:30 pm; March 18, 7:30 pm

This experimental documentary explores the Ojibwe story of the Seven Fires Prophecy, which has been interpreted as predicting the arrival of the Europeans in North America and the destruction they caused. Bold, smart, and unflinching, the film examines the relationship between tradition and modern indigenous identity. Copresented by the Augsburg Native American film series. 2016, US and Canada, 75 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

Trudell, introduced by director Heather Rae, preceded by the music video for “Time Dreams”

Screening: March 24, 7:30 pm, Free

“A thought-provoking and graceful portrait of a tenacious peace warrior whose frankness is his greatest weapon.” —Boston Globe

This intimate portrait of poet and American Indian Movement leader John Trudell is the result of 12 years of extensive research and features interviews and archival footage. He passed away in 2015, and the screening pays tribute to his life and influence. 2005, US, 80 minutes.

Serving as a grace note to a life of inspiration, activism, and preservation of the human spirit, the music video for the Pines’ “Time Dreams” is the result of a collaboration with John Trudell, Missy Whiteman, and the musicians. The song is the closing track on the Pines’ 2016 album Above The Prairie.

 

Discussion and Screening: Views from Standing Rock, with filmmakers Heather Rae and Cody Lucich in Person

Screening: March 25, 7:30 pm, Free

Cody Lucich’s AKICITA 2017 Photo courtesy Heather Rae and Cody Lucich.

Cody Lucich’s AKICITA, 2017. Photo courtesy Heather Rae and Cody Lucich

Filmmakers Heather Rae (Trudell), and Cody Lucich discuss documentary filmmaking, activism, and representation and present footage from AKICITA, a forthcoming documentary about the global, indigenous uprising born at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

Next Month in the Walker Cinema: January 2017

This January the Walker Cinema proudly presents contemporary triumphs of international and independent film. Featuring Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, a powerful portrait of the European migrant crisis and Notes on Blindness, a rich cinematic exploration of waning vision, this season at the Walker showcases the creative innovation that defines our times.   A Monster […]

walker-cinema-screening

This January the Walker Cinema proudly presents contemporary triumphs of international and independent film. Featuring Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, a powerful portrait of the European migrant crisis and Notes on Blindness, a rich cinematic exploration of waning vision, this season at the Walker showcases the creative innovation that defines our times.

 

A Monster Calls, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

Screening: January 5, 7 pm, Free

“An unforgettable, emotional experience … one that lets us grapple with our most basic human fears and worries, while lighting a beacon of hope that can shine through that darkness.” —The Verge

With his mother (Felicity Jones) ailing, 12-year-old Conor discovers an unlikely ally when he awakens a towering, twisted yew tree known as the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). Melding realism with the fantastical, the film follows the boy as the Monster teaches him to cope with loss. 2017, US, DCP, 108 minutes.

Post-Screening Conversation: Join executive producer Bill Pohlad and Jim Burke, president of production for Focus Features, for a discussion about the film.

 

Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), directed by Gianfranco Rosi

Screenings: January 13, 7:30 pm; January 14, 2 and 7:30 pm; January 15, 2 pm

“[Gianfranco Rosi] observes, with humility and precision. Instead of raising awareness, he cultivates alertness. ‘Fire at Sea’ occupies your consciousness like a nightmare, and yet somehow you don’t want it to end.” —New York Times

Poetically rendering the European migrant crisis, Fire at Sea explores life on Lampedusa, the Mediterranean island that has become a point of entry for African refugees into Europe. 2016, Italy/France, in Italian with English subtitles, 108 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

Son of Joseph (Le Fils de Joseph), directed by Eugène Green

Screenings: January 20, 7:30 pm; January 21, 2 and 7:30 pm

“Shot through with an intensely pleasurable intellectual playfulness, this is the American-born French director’s most accomplished and surprising film to date, boasting his trademark thoughtfulness and precision, yet also being almost puppyishly easy to love.” —Indiewire

A stylized comedic delight that weaves biblical references to Abraham, Isaac, Mary, and Joseph into the present day, the film tells the story of Vincent (newcomer Victor Ezenfis), a rebellious teenager searching for the father he has never known. 2016, France/Belgium, in French with English subtitles, 115 minutes.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

Notes on Blindness, directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney

Screenings: January 27, 7:30 pm; January 28, 2 and 7:30 pm; January 29, 2pm

“The genius of the film is in allowing us to understand and visualize the world of blindness… A beautiful, accessible and thoughtful work of art.” —The Guardian

A striking adaptation of the audio diary theologian John Hull produced as he attempted to grapple with his loss of eyesight. The film is accompanied by the downloadable VR experience Into Darkness. 2016, UK, 90 minutes.

Enhanced Screening: Saturday, January 28, 2 pm. The filmmakers worked with one of Europe’s leading sound designers, Joakin Sundström, to create a rich, immersive soundtrack calibrated specifically for blind and sighted audiences.

Tickets: $10 ($8 Walker members, students, and seniors)

 

2017 Film Independent Spirit Awards

Screenings: Tuesdays and Wednesdays, January 10–February 8; 6 and 8 pm

Members of the Walker and IFP MN are invited to free screenings of 21 films nominated for the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Awards, celebrating the finest achievements of today’s filmmakers. Exclusively for members, screenings of nominees in four categories—Best Feature, Best First Feature, Best Documentary, and the John Cassavetes Award—are offered weekly in January and February. Enjoy Pablo Larrain’s Jackie one week and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight the next. Satisfy your need for screen-time with the binge-worthy O.J.: Made in America in a marathon showing from 11:30 am to 7:30 pm on Sunday, January 22.

Tickets: Copresented by the Walker, Film Independent, and Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota, these events are only open to Walker and IFP MN members. Free tickets are available from 5 pm on screening nights on a first-come, first-served basis; two tickets per membership. Please bring your membership card. Walker Film Club and IFP MN members can also reserve two tickets in advance for each film. Please note: orders must be received by 12 noon on day of screening.

Walker Film Club: RSVP here.

IFP MN Members RSVP: rsvp@ifpmn.org

Moral Ambiguity, Meritocracy, and Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994)

Robert Redford’s acclaimed film Quiz Show (1994) screens at the Walker Art Center on October 26, 2016 as part of the Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary retrospective. In September of 1994—two months after cable and network television stations devoted two uninterrupted hours to coverage of law enforcement’s slow-speed pursuit of O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco and […]

Quiz Show (1994) Directed by Robert Redford Shown: Ralph Fiennes Robert Redford’s Quiz Show 1994 Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

Ralph Fiennes in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

Robert Redford’s acclaimed film Quiz Show (1994) screens at the Walker Art Center on October 26, 2016 as part of the Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary retrospective.

In September of 1994—two months after cable and network television stations devoted two uninterrupted hours to coverage of law enforcement’s slow-speed pursuit of O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco and two years after MTV debuted The Real World, a reality show promising to capture when cohabiting strangers “stop being polite”—Buena Vista Pictures released Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s origin story for the ascent of sensationalized reality television. Informed by Redford’s own experiences in the entertainment industry, the film offers the rigging of 1950s televised trivia shows as a prime example of “the eternal struggle between ethics and capitalism.”

The film was set in the waning days of the first Golden Age of Television when TV game shows were ubiquitous in the United States—and so were their controversies. In 1954, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that game shows didn’t constitute gambling, but when the show Dotto (CBS) surfaced as rigged in 1958 PBS reported, “more and more former quiz show contestants came forward to reveal how they had been coached.” Through controls like coaching programs could predict (read: determine) winnings and stay within production budgets.

Following scandals around the quiz shows $64,000 Question and Twenty One in particular, the FCC attempted to amend its licensing policies, marking an inflection point in television regulation. Rather than issuing the licenses pro forma, the FCC adopted a harder line, announcing, “There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license.”1

As network television grew in popularity, its function in society was shifting. Scholar Peter Lunt laments, “The role of television as a public service provider is under threat as the social, market and technological contours of the mediascape change.”2 In this vein, we should analyze the structure of television, too. The service was established—and continues to operate—in a top-down manner, similar to most corporate, capitalist enterprises. When we realize there is little individual “choice” to begin with, then whom do we blame when things go south? How do individuals reconcile the “false consciousness” and the “sincere fictions” disseminated through media and internalized in their daily lived experiences?

Appropriately, then, television stars as the central character in Quiz Show. Interested in the topic of “winning,” Quiz Show completes Redford’s unofficial trilogy dedicated to unpacking the rather uniquely American obsession with ascensions to status and power (Downhill Racer and The Candidate precede Quiz Show in the trilogy). To explain his rationale for focusing on an event that occurred decades prior to 1994, Redford remarks, “I see the quiz-show scandals as really the first in a series of downward steps to the loss of our innocence. When it hit, the country was numbed by the shock, but it was erased quickly because no one, including Congress, or the networks, wanted to deal with it or hear about it. But the shocks kept coming: Jack Kennedy’s death, Bobby’s death, Martin Luther King. Then Watergate, then BCCI, Iran-Contra, S. & L. And now O.J. I think people may look at this film and say, ‘Well, as a scandal, big deal.’ But in a historical context, it’s very much a big deal. This was the beginning of our letting things go. And what did we do about it? Kind of nothing, as long as we kept being entertained.”3

On the larger theme of “winning at all cost,” Redford explains:

You’re given slogans like “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Well, I found out that was a lie; in this country, everything mattered, whether you won or not. And so, I wanted to make a trilogy and pick three areas of our society that were dominant—sports, politics and business—and tell a story about the pyrrhic victory of winning.4

According to critics, Quiz Show acts as a “forced parable of lost innocence” as well as a “meditation on some of the dark, sleazy realities just beneath the glitz and glitter of postwar American culture.”5 Yet, why did Robert Redford, of all Hollywood notables, feel compelled to tell this story, to underscore the dangers posed by the cultural myth of American meritocracy? Even Richard Goodwin, author of the book the film is partly based off, attempts to undermine the cheats at the top and expose their dirty dealings through his congressional work—but to what end? After all, who is actually on trial? In this instance, does television fill our need for a scapegoat?  

Twenty One
star Charles Van Doren was chosen to participate on the show because of his prestigious and wealthy lineage. He purportedly had a “fatal Achilles’ heel—his intellectual vanity, the sense that he [wasn’t] quite measuring up to his illustrious antecedents,” which complicated his eagerness to go through with the lying and cheating. No one believed his claim that he was doing a public service by “promoting education” to the millions of home viewers.

The Washington Post’s Desson Howe argues the Van Doren that Redford portrays is a “sympathetic Hollywood spin on the real counterpart.” In some respects, Van Doren serves as a symbol, and consequently his treatment as a character is more limited by binaries. Redford relies on his own creative license to attempt to fill in the grey area between the black and white categories that audiences are more trained to see and expect from moralistic Hollywood.

Charles Van Doren (right), with Vivienne Nearing and Jack Barry on Twenty One

Charles Van Doren (right), with Vivienne Nearing and Jack Barry on Twenty One. Public domain photo via Wikipedia.

Don Enright, son of Twenty-One co-creator Dan Enright, believes Redford editorialized, too:

Quiz Show, the movie, is rigged. Fixed. Just like its television counterpart.

And for precisely the same reason. Played straight, the story would be much more dramatically complicated and much less morally convenient. The real truth is that Redford has sacrificed truth—not to say decency—to make his show a more dramatic, more compelling and, ultimately, more successful product for mass entertainment. Precisely the same offense for which they once, quite properly, condemned Dan Enright.

We cling to the cliché that Americans love rooting for the underdog. On Twenty One’s archetypal underdog, Herb Stempel, Professor Richard Tedlow asserts, “Like a good American, he fought hard, taking advantage of every rule… Like a good American, he won without crowing. And, like a good American, he kept on winning.”6 It is hard not to empathize with a character who “feel[s] like a racehorse whose gate won’t open.” We recognize the sentiment and repeat the mantra. If only there were more opportunity; if only we worked harder; if only we got the recognition we deserved. As Rolling Stone’s film critic Peter Travers puts it, “Redford sees the battle between Van Doren and Stempel as a microcosm of American class warfare: It’s race vs. race, pretty vs. ugly, have vs. have-not.”7

Arguably, the American public revels in watching elites fall from grace even more than seeing the common man rise up. Brinson notes, “The sheer enjoyment Americans found in watching the quiz shows was matched by their sheer disgust at learning of the deception.” Watching the original Twenty One episode you get an uneasy feeling that Van Doren and Stempel are puppets putting on a show. You get a similar feeling watching reality TV shows of today. With likable and unlikable personalities, “TV is still playing the game of reinforcing stereotypes and fudging facts in the name of entertainment.”

Quiz Show illustrates that if anyone is to be put in the monetized limelight, a descendent to the white, patriarchal status quo remains preferential. The real “game show” in America—the fallacy of the American dream—plays out in a similar way. In his congressional testimony, Van Doren admits, “I’ve stood on the shoulders of life and I’ve never gotten down into the dirt to build, to erect a foundation of my own. I’ve flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easy.”8

Has this story changed in recent years? Think Ethan Couch, think Brock Turner—two white, young, wealthy males whose heinous actions—drunk driving and rape—were barely sanctioned. Couch’s offense even brought a new term into the American lexicon: affluenza, which, in part, then minimizes the real damage such a “disease” actually hath wrought. Although both cases were met with wide media coverage, few actual consequences were delivered, which served to cement the treatment for their ilk. Why are we effectively saving a falling Icarus? Conor Friedsdorf of the Atlantic writes about this issue, noting, “When elites break the rules they aren’t punished like regular people. They’re bailed out of trouble, or spared criminal prosecution for their lawlessness.” Why does this happen and what will it take for it to stop?

Redford spoke about his intent in regards to Quiz Show, claiming, “I want an audience to be fascinated by the process of finding an answer, or finding out there isn’t one.”9 He relies on nuance and perception. In claiming this purpose, Redford also projects the idea of filmmaking as exploration. He himself does not have all the answers.

After viewing his work, we can admit there might never be tidy answers to these big questions. Rather, we must sit with the ambiguity. We can also admit that the FCC and other governing bodies may never enforce ethics as they should—not when money and corporate interests are involved.

However, it may be too painful to admit that America has been lying to itself this whole time, that the answers to the questions we ask are far too nuanced to comprehend in the predetermined parameters. Just look at how quick we are to give out lavish commendations to wrongdoers for simply finally telling the truth. Van Doren only faced consequences where it regarded his public persona and subsequent influence. His punishment: to live his privileged life knowing he was once caught for his criminal and immoral behavior. Except, as he admits during his aforementioned testimony, he had plenty of others to aid his ascent—yet no one was there when he fell. The elite, powerful moneymakers continue on unscathed and pawns like Van Doren take the heat.

We must critically examine how the undercurrent of meritocracy runs deep in this country and be ready to navigate the ambiguity that follows. Regardless of whom you deem most at fault, Janet Maslin of the New York Times summarizes it best: “Confronted by that Chrysler as a symbol of false values and misplaced optimism, the audience faces the most salient aspect of the American dream: that we had to wake up.”

Footnotes
1 Brinson, Susan, “Epilogue to the Quiz Show Scandal: A Study of the FCC and Corporate Favoritism,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media,June 2003.
2 Lunt, Peter, Television, Public Participation, and Public Service: From Value Consensus to the Politics of Identity,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 625, (Sept. 2009), pp. 128–138.
3 Rubenstein, Hal, “Robert Redford,” Interview Magazine, September 1994.
4 Ibid.
5 Sumner, Gregory D. “Review,” The American Historical Review. Vol. 100, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 1206–1207
6 Tedlow, Richard S., “Intellect on Television: The Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s,” American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 483–495.
7 Travers, Peter, “Quiz Show,” Rolling Stone. September 14, 1994.
8 Brinson, Susan, “Epilogue to the Quiz Show Scandal: A Study of the FCC and Corporate Favoritism”. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2003.
9 Rubenstein, Hal, “Robert Redford,” Interview Magazine, September 1994.

Filming Process: The Mundane, Remarkable Stories of Certain Women

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's Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

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 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.

Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

Kristen Stewart in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

“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.

Kelly Reichardt Certain Women 2016 Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Lily Gladstone in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, 2016. Photo courtesy IFC Films

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taryn (Deragh Campbell). Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

Taryn

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

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

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

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

Taryn and Kim (played by Kim Taylor)

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

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

Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.

Taryn and Abby (played by Hannah Gross)

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

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

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

Making Poetry Films: Some Discoveries

I’m stingy at the box office, but last week I saw Life of Pi in the theater for the second time. The movie is a visual knockout, a delirium of color, probably the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen onscreen, but what I love most about it is it central metaphor. The script is deeply […]

Still from Amy Schmitt’s motionpoem, which adapts Erin Belieu’s “When at a Certain Party in NYC”

I’m stingy at the box office, but last week I saw Life of Pi in the theater for the second time. The movie is a visual knockout, a delirium of color, probably the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen onscreen, but what I love most about it is it central metaphor.

The script is deeply flawed. When the narrative is unveiled as an allegory, the telling is clumsy. But in that moment the film is transformed into a poem.

In my dual roles as literary director of Motionpoems–a poetry film company that will premiere a dozen new shorts at the Walker on April 24–and as a publishing poet, I am interested in the intersection of poetry and film. I’m interested in where the language of film intersects with the language of poetry. I’m always wondering what the forms have to teach one another.

It’s one thing to say that a script approaches the poetic. But what happens when a poem is the script? That’s what we do: At Motionpoems, co-founder Angella Kassube and I give great contemporary poems to our network of filmmakers and invite them to use them as scripts for short films over which they retain complete creative control. We do it because we believe film can introduce more people to the world of poetry.

Poems are, in many ways, perfect scripts. They often tell a story whether they’re narrative or not. They have a structure, a shape, and a progression of ideas, and they involve a speaker or implied speaker. More importantly, they are complete works of art, wholly contained and perfect.

We now have more than 30 films in our three-year archive at motionpoems.com. Here are some things we’ve discovered about this unique blending of artistic languages:

Pacing is essential.

Listening to poetry out loud poses a challenge for most people, a bit like being led on a blindfolded walk in a tangled wilderness. Poetry is a dense, convoluted landscape, and one can easily get lost if you’re not used to that landscape. Poets who are great readers of their own work are rare, mostly because their familiarity with their own work makes them tend to forget that every listener is new to it; often they simply read too quickly. For this reason, Motionpoems video artists don’t often utilize the poet’s voice, and choose to utilize a more careful voice-over instead. A film can pace a poem by slowing it down, pause it so the reader can catch up, and allow it to unfold on a timeline that’s organic to the way in which the poem might be absorbed by a first-time listener, not the way it might be read by a poetry aficionado.

Film can add layers.

A great example of excellent pacing is Scott Wenner’s adaptation of Norwegian poet Dag Straumsvag’s “Karl” from our 2010 season, but it’s also an excellent example of how a film can layer metaphors on top of a poem’s existing metaphors. “Karl” is, by itself, a haunting little narrative poem about a man who keeps getting misplaced calls from the police, but the film adaptation boldly sets the poem in the context of a derelict basement and uses two bugs—a moth and a spider—as central characters in the drama. Like Life of Pi, the film becomes an allegory for the poem, not a literal depiction of it, and as such, it multiplies the poem’s power to mean.

Film can amplify humor.

Most people think poetry is gravely serious. Not so. A lot of contemporary poetry is downright hilarious, but you wouldn’t know it from its sober façade on the printed page. A great recent 2012 motionpoem that takes its cues from film noir and turns a sardonic poem by Erin Belieu into a hard-boiled rant is Amy Schmitt’s adaptation of “When at a Certain Party in NYC.” The thing moves like a city bus: In this case a literal depiction is the perfect choice because the scenery glides by so quickly. Most poets chafe at any mention of the arts as entertainment, but film happily exploits the entertainment in art.

Film can restore poetry’s original power.

It should be said that what my Motionpoems co-director Angella Kassube and I are attempting isn’t to make poems better, or to interpret them literally, but to consider them as starting points for another art form, and thereby extend poetry’s typical readership. If, in the process, our video artists interpret, well, that’s a casualty of the process. Some will take exception to this, but it misses the point; our mission is to treat the poem as a creative start-point, not an endpoint. At The Playwrights’ Center, where I worked for a time, I was surrounded by theater artists, all of them collaborative by training and necessity. Poetry’s origin as an oral/performing art leaves it rather orphaned in print. Just as television is finally rediscovering the power of great scripts, Angella and I believe film can restore some of poetry’s birthrights.

We hope you’ll come see our new films at the Walker on April 24 and share in the discussion.

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