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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.

Interview: Chris Sullivan on Michael Jordan, Jean Piaget, and The Sopranos

I met Chris Sullivan quite by accident at the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival. My friend and I had settled in for a screening of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt when the guy next to us struck up a conversation about the good crowd for the screening. He mentioned he was a filmmaker visiting with his […]

Chris Sullivan Coutesy Taylor Glascock

Chris Sullivan
Courtesy Taylor Glascock

I met Chris Sullivan quite by accident at the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival. My friend and I had settled in for a screening of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt when the guy next to us struck up a conversation about the good crowd for the screening. He mentioned he was a filmmaker visiting with his film, we asked which film? That film happen to be Consuming Spirits and the guy we coincidentally sat down next happened to be Chris Sullivan. The Walker had booked Chris’ film literally right before I had left for Vancouver, so I was thrilled with the lucky serendipity.

Three months later after this brief meeting and as the screenings for Consuming Spirits at the Walker quickly approached, I seized the opportunity to interview Chris about the film and his work for an article on the Walker site. Our conversation spiraled in many different and interesting directions, many of which I was unable to incorporate in the piece that I wrote. Read on for our full conversation where Chris compares Prairie Home Companion to The Sopranos, feels lucky that he didn’t make a film about Lady Di, and diviluges that David Bowie is on his short list for his next film, even if David doesn’t know it! (more…)

(Almost) 20 questions with Miranda July

Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), who last visited the Walker in 2000 to show video and performance work from her Big Miss Moviola project, returns on July 8 to present her second feature, The Future, which premiered at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. Deftly balancing bathos and pathos, July’s film […]

Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), who last visited the Walker in 2000 to show video and performance work from her Big Miss Moviola project, returns on July 8 to present her second feature, The Future, which premiered at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. Deftly balancing bathos and pathos, July’s film is a funny and unsettling tale about impending maturity and the responsibility that comes with it. In advance of July’s arrival, we posed a few questions to her.

  1. What have you been obsessing about lately?
    My poison oak. It’s going away more now, but there were a bunch of nights where I’d have fantasies that I could shoot my legs or cut them off and throw them out the window.
  2. What’s your guilty pleasure?
    I have pretty horrible taste in movies. If there’s an ad for a phenomenally bad-looking movie, usually a romantic comedy, I’m like ‘I definitely want to see that.’ I’m disappointed at the end but I have high hopes for them. The marketing completely works on me. I saw 50 First Dates on opening weekend. And a lot a Drew Barrymore movies. And 27 Dresses
  3. What was your worst job?
    I worked as a car door unlocker when people’d lock their keys in their car. It was a company called Pop-a-Lock and I was on call 24 hours so I’d get called out at like 3 am. Plus I wasn’t really that good at it, and that made it very stressful.
  4. What’s your favorite passage of poetry?
    That William Carlos Williams poem, the one with “sorry I ate all the plums.” My husband says that to me at random, so I associate it with him.
  5. What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?
    The Velvet Underground, and all their related spheres—Warhol, even Patti Smith, just reading about that whole era. And then the Pixies, because they were modern, so it was very different.
  6. What’s your favorite comfort food?
    French toast.
  7. What’s the most overrated virtue?
    Just being good in general. But I’m always trying to be good, so I’m hoping it’s overrated.
  8. When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
    When I was 16, right when I did my first play, which I put on in a punk club in my town. I remember thinking very consciously, “Ok this is it, this is what I’ll do.”
  9. What three items can always be found in your refrigerator?
    My husband has some pickled vegetables made by his mom, who passed away many years ago. He’s not ready to let go of those and they’re definitely not edible. I’m just being with them until it’s time to let them go.
  10. Which living person do you most admire?
    I admire my husband but I know him. People I don’t know? Michael Pollan seems very admirable to me. Usually I admire educators of some sort—Alice Waters is another.
  11. What artists are you most interested in at the moment?
    I brought with me on this trip a Lydia Davis book I’d read a milllion times before, just to remember that life can be good. So Lydia Davis. I’d haven’t seen Attenberg by Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari, but its trailer is influencing me, and I’m excited that it exists. And the visual artist Marie Lund. I met her briefly at the Venice Biennale and later looked her up and realized I love her work. Also the website Intelligent Clashing.
  12. If you could ask one question to every person on Earth, what would it be?
    How do you get through the day?
  13. What have you been listening to lately?
    Deer Hunter, Beach House, Lightning Dust.
  14. What is your least favorite sound?
    A mosquito.
  15. What is your favorite euphemism?
    This is not a favorite, but that word reminds me of how my parents would say they were going to go take a nap, and my brother and I always took that to be a euphemism for sex, but looking back, I don’t think they had sex that much, and not in the middle of the day while we were right there. But I remember trying to play dumb, or going outside or whatever. I think they really were taking a nap.
  16. What’s your favorite mode of transport?
    Walking.
  17. Which artistic trend annoys you the most?
    I’ve done this before myself, but when people refer to their “practice” – I can’t help but smile a little bit.
  18. Do you own a status symbol, and if so, what is it?
    Is a 2003 Prius a status symbol?

Simulations and Simulacra (and Ming Wong)

co-written by Jeremy Meckler and Michael Montag Most of Ming Wong’s work is installation-based—video projections looped in galleries for unwitting spectators to wander in at any point in the video’s eternal repetition. What’s strange about this, is that Wong’s work is generally in direct dialogue with conventional, theater-based cinema. His radical recasting, restaging, and recontextualizing […]


co-written by Jeremy Meckler and Michael Montag

Most of Ming Wong’s work is installation-based—video projections looped in galleries for unwitting spectators to wander in at any point in the video’s eternal repetition. What’s strange about this, is that Wong’s work is generally in direct dialogue with conventional, theater-based cinema. His radical recasting, restaging, and recontextualizing are the lifeblood of his work. From In Love for the Mood (2009), a remake of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love with a Caucasian actress playing all of the parts, to Life of Imitation, a reinterpretation of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life with three men from different Singaporean ethnic groups taking turns portraying the protagonist and her mother, Wong’s work takes the cinema out into the gallery and forces viewers to stare at the social/racial implications buried in it.

But in tonight’s screening, Wong’s work will be ripped from the gallery, and thrown back into the theater that it draws its reference from in the first place. Tonight, the Walker screens what could be seen as Wong’s “Fassbinder series,” the two films screening tonight both take their inspiration from New German Cinema rockstar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And, tracing the line back even further, both of the Fassbinder films are themselves restagings of earlier works.

Wong’s Angst Essen is based on Fassbinder’s 1974 Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf), which is itself a remake of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows (1955), a film whose heritage has cinematic links to the lachrymose melodramas of the 20’s and 30’s (namely, three neglected John Stahl melodramas from the ‘30s—Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, and When Tomorrow Comes, all of which Sirk remade in the ‘50s). Fassbinder paid further homage to Sirk in his article “Six Films by Douglas Sirk,” which originally appeared in Film Comment in the 1970s. At the end of the article, he concludes with great enthusiasm, “I have seen six films by Douglas Sirk. Among them were the most beautiful in the world.” Both directors used melodrama as a means of social criticism. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul may retain the dramatic structure and plot of All That Heaven Allows, but it’s also, like Imitation of Life, rather brutally straightforward about racism and its noxious effects. It’s both a remake and an homage to Sirk in general. On purely visual terms, Fassbinder’s picture is more subdued, but he creates a mise-en-scene that is laden with Sirkian symbols: television sets, mirrors, doorways, all of which reiterate a sense of alienation, and in the former, there is a critique of materialism (though I think this is more true of Sirk, as he’s bringing attention to American materialism). Unlike Sirk, who came to America in the late ‘30s, Fassbinder remained in Germany; nevertheless both drew heavily on their European intellectual backgrounds.

A few more thoughts: Sirk’s films are a lot trashier than any of their remakes. They are REALLY ridiculous, but through a combination of social critique and dynamic visual style, he transcends the sheer ridiculousness of the material and elevates it to art, I think. What I mean to say is the excessive visual style comments on and critiques the actual content or material. He’s using the form to dissect the content.

While Fassbinder’s obsession with and admiration for Sirk’s English-language melodrama crossed language barriers, Ming Wong’s focus on Fassbinder illuminates those very linguistic differences. Wong moved to Berlin two years ago, and still doesn’t speak German, yet rather than translating the film into one of the languages he does speak (Malay, Mandarin, English, etc.) he performs it all in German. Wong even goes so far as to transform one of these films into a film about language. Taking directly from Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, originally based on a play by Fassbinder, Ming Wong portrays the perpetually distraught and abusive Petra in his interpretation, Lerne Deutsch mit Petra von Kant. Wong’s stilted, repeated German, mixed with his violent portrayal of this powerful character lends a strange feeling to the experience of learning such important German expressions as Ich liebe Sie (I love her) and Eine dreckige, elende, miese Hure (A dirty, miserable, lousy whore). And his recasting and reperformance returns Petra von Kant to the trashy eloquence of Douglas Sirk.

It is through the restaging of work he admires that Wong is able to draw out what he is interested in. By causing a disjunction both in the language of the work, and the actors, Wong is able to draw us in to the assumptions that cause that disjunction. He is able to focus tightly on the underlying elements of the work itself—like Sirk, he uses the form to dissect the content. In an interview, Wong said of his Sirk restaging, Life of Imitation:

The key moment in the scene is when the daughter turns to the mirror and declares to her black mother that she is ‘white’. I used 3 actors from Singapore for the roles, and they are all neither white, or black, nor are they female, or from Hollywood, and they are the wrong age to play either mother or daughter, a total mis-casting.

This blog is too short a venue to explore tonight’s other exhibiting artist, Phil Collins. Not to be confused with the Prog-Rock percussionist and vocalist, this Phil Collins is a world-renowned artist considered for the 2007 Turner Prize. To find out more about Phil Collins and Ming Wong (and to see their work) come to the free screening tonight at 7:30 as a part of this year’s Artists’ Cinema 2011: Projected Images.

Queer Takes: Alt Families

In its fifth anniversary program, Queer Takes delves into the complexities of the topic of families within the LGBT community—those who have been rejected by their blood relatives and formed new families among tight kin they’ve chosen as well as those facing the challenge of obtaining legal and official recognition of their relationships.

In its fifth anniversary program, Queer Takes delves into the complexities of the topic of families within the LGBT community—those who have been rejected by their blood relatives and formed new families among tight kin they’ve chosen as well as those facing the challenge of obtaining legal and official recognition of their relationships.

Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0S_-ouXi3I[/youtube]

Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lL83Yl4-9Vc[/youtube]

Going South (Plein Sud)

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ms2aYFqnV_0[/youtube]

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