Blogs Crosscuts Walker Film

Filmmaker Portrait: Arthur Dong

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Arthur Dong interviewed seven men. He sat with them, talked […]

Arthur Dong

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors.

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Arthur Dong interviewed seven men. He sat with them, talked with them, looked them in their eyes. He gave them his full attention and complete respect. Not one for twisting stories, he filmed them in a way that told their truth. These men were also Dong’s worst fear.

In his 1997 documentary Licensed to Kill, Arthur Dong begins by telling viewers about his own narrow escape from a homophobic attack which left him fearful and wary when walking alone. Dong confronted his fear through his film. He wanted to understand the people making these attacks, so he went into prisons to interview seven men, each one convicted of a homophobic murder.  While this itself is remarkable—to sit across from someone who decided to murder someone just for being who they are—what is even more extraordinary is how he approached each story. Dong tries to understand each man and his background. He doesn’t demonize them; he helps us to see them as human. Each convicted murderer has their own troubled past, their own story to tell. Licensed to Kill allows both Dong and the viewer to understand the full story on why these men committed the crimes.

Not many visiting filmmakers at the Walker created as much political and community impact as Arthur Dong’s artist residency in April 1998. His visit was centered on the Twin Cities premiere of Licensed to Kill, but also involved screenings of his other documentaries and community events to support the Twin Cities LGBTQ community. As Licensed to Kill focuses in part on a crime that took place in Minneapolis, his visit ultimately became a way for the public to discuss their fears and hopes about transforming this area into a safer, more accepting community.

The Twin Cities case featured in Licensed to Kill involved a young man named Jay Johnson who shot two men on separate evenings in areas of the city notorious for gay cruising. During Dong’s residency he was able to go back to the prison in St Cloud and tape an interview with Johnson after he viewed the film. Johnson discussed his thoughts on the film and the other murderers featured alongside his story. As he spoke with the director, he seemed to be considering the gravity of his actions for the first time. His conversation with Dong was the first interview Johnson allowed to be conducted. Johnson explained that he’d witnessed too many of his fellow inmates become traumatized after allowing interviews with local news programs who sensationalize their stories. Johnson trusted Dong because he researched Dong’s career.

Dong aims to make unbiased documentaries. “As a filmmaker, part of what I struggle with and try to do in the editing room is to allow the space for the viewer to participate in the interpretation of what I’m doing,” Dong told the Gay and Lesbian Review in 2005. “Certainly I have a point of view, but you in the audience can also delve into your own personal experiences and your own interpretation of what is being transmitted on that two-dimensional, flat screen.” This generosity—allowing viewers their own opinion—is what makes his work so remarkable.

Dong’s weeklong Walker residency ran from April 14 to 18, but was jam-packed with community events and discussions: a workshop at MCAD, a screening of Licensed to Kill with a discussion at South High School, multiple screenings of his films at the Walker, panel discussions with Minneapolis residents and members of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), along with a follow-up interview with one of the convicted killers featured in the documentary Licensed to Kill.

Panels held by PFLAG  allowed community members to discuss lingering feelings about Jay Johnson’s crime along with how to make the Twin Cities a safer place. The panel members were open to discussing their own experiences—from having LGBTQ children, the impact of religion, and the influence that the community plays in this kind of violence. One panel member emphasized the importance of listening to and understanding the perpetrators in order to stop hate crimes. Dong ended the discussion with a motto, which is crucial to many community issues: “Think globally, act locally.”

Arthur Dong’s visit emphasized the importance of discussing local events and crimes with other community members. Licensed to Kill resonates with current issues facing Minnesota such as anti-bullying policies and the safety of the Minneapolis LGBTQ community. The Walker recently hosted Joshua Oppenheimer, a visiting filmmaker whose film dealt with similar topics. His documentary The Act of Killing, focuses on interviewing Indonesian men who killed thousands of people in an anti-communist purge and their reasoning behind these killings.

Arthur Dong’s visit 16 years ago created a discourse between the arts community and the Twin Cities at large that remains relevant today. His residency not only featured screenings of award-winning documentaries, but also inspired community and political action around the Twin Cities.

Palme d’Or Winning Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan visits Minneapolis

Acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan visited the Walker earlier this month to introduce his Palme d’Or Winning film Winter Sleep to a sold out theater. He was accompanied by his friend and actor, Mehmet Eryilmaz. Ceylan’s film takes place in the otherworldly landscape of Anatolia at a hotel run by a former actor, his […]

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Actor Mehmet Eryilmaz and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan during their November 2014 visit to the Walker.

Acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan visited the Walker earlier this month to introduce his Palme d’Or Winning film Winter Sleep to a sold out theater. He was accompanied by his friend and actor, Mehmet Eryilmaz. Ceylan’s film takes place in the otherworldly landscape of Anatolia at a hotel run by a former actor, his younger wife, and his distraught sister. The expansive, three hour long feature film questions the importance of family, love, charity, and forgiveness.  The film kicked off a retrospective that included screenings of Climates, Distant, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

Ceylan’s career as a filmmaker grew out of a passion for photography. During his trip to Minneapolis, he made an excursion around the city to take photographs of the Mississippi River. Accompanied by Minneapolis artist David Goldes and Eryilmaz, the director visited the Stone Arch Bridge, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and Goldes’ photography studio.

Ceyland with Senior Curator Sheryl Mousley in the Cargill Lobby of the Walker Art Center

Ceylan with Senior Curator Sheryl Mousley in the Walker Art Center

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Ceylan in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

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Photographer David Goldes with Ceylan at the Mississippi River.

The artists’ portrait (top) was taken by Gene Pittman in the Walker studio. All other photos were taken by Mehmet Eryilmaz.

Filmmaker Portrait: Michael Powell

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors. Imagine that it’s the late 1940s and you’re about to go to the cinema. The majority of […]

Michael Powell

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors.

Imagine that it’s the late 1940s and you’re about to go to the cinema. The majority of films coming out at that time are in black and white. You walk into Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and you are ushered into a new world. A ballerina spinning out of control, fantastical plotlines, and color, lots of color. So much of the film is focused on the color red, and you start to understand the danger that comes with this ferocious shade. You find yourself mesmerized. Never before have you come across such a captivating film. The audience claps and your feet are still stuck to the floor next to nibbles of popcorn. Thank you, Mr. Powell and Mr. Pressburger.

Fast forward to the ’80s: the Walker Art Center is celebrating the 10th anniversary of their new building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes in the summer of 1981. There is also a visit by one of Britain’s most innovative directors. Michael Powell was brought to the Walker during a retrospective of his films organized by the Film/Video department. He visited the museum for two days to introduce two of his most celebrated films, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, both films written, produced, and directed with his filmmaking partner Pressburger. He was joined during his visit by William K. Everson, British film historian, who taught at NYU at the time. As the Minneapolis Tribune reported, “Michael Powell showed up at Walker Art Center last week looking like an advertisement for one of his films, films whose use of color brightened the cinematic landscape in the 1940s and ’50s…red socks of a color so loud they almost shouted from under the cuffs of his blue wool suit. His shirt and tie were more modest, but not much. One was lavender, the other a reddish orange.”

His visit initiated a splash of headlines on newspapers across the Twin Cities. The previous year, he had a retrospective at MOMA and this rippled into a resurgence of excitement for his films. While Powell was perhaps not a very familiar name, his connections with Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola certainly brought him well deserved attention.  Fourteen of his films were shown at the Walker throughout June and early July of 1980. They included: The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going, The Spy in Black, The Thief of Baghdad, and Peeping Tom.

Peeping Tom was the only film that brought bad press and this was because of its disturbing subject matter. Because of the film’s blatantly violent scenarios, the Women Against Violence Against Women group chose to picket the screening. The film temporarily banished Powell from the British film world. Peeping Tom tells the story of a man who murders women in front of a camera in order to capture their last looks before death. When the film opened in theaters in 1960, audience members and critics alike were horrified by the storyline. Despite the initial reaction, Martin Scorsese rereleased the film 20 years later and it is now hailed as a British masterpiece. According to Twin Cities Reader, around 20 people showed up outside of The Walker to protest the screening.

Powell’s visit to the Twin Cities was short but jam-packed. He conducted numerous interviews and attended many dinners, one being at an old Minneapolis favorite: New French Café. The Walker’s Film/Video curator at the time, Richard Peterson, was eager to bring Powell to theater performances at The Guthrie. Powell especially wanted to see The Tempest (directed by Liviu Ciulei); a play that he had always intended to translate to the screen but never gained enough funding. Powell had lunch with Ciulei the next day to discuss the piece.

Powell was able to introduce two films at the walker, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, which were both filmed in Technicolor and involve dramatic plotlines centered on escapism. The harmony of color and music energize scenes and make it almost impossible for viewers to look away. When the films were made, World War II had recently ended and Powell and Pressburger were sick of making war films. As Powell explained to the Minneapolis Star, they decided to “explode in color in a big way.”  These films generated excitement across audiences worldwide.

Michael Powell’s visit was a milestone for the Walker and represents the incredibly diverse range of artists the Walker has been lucky enough to host. Powell’s work not only celebrates the excitement and joy films can bring but also the ability that a film has to transport one into a new (and colorful!) world.

Filmmaker Portrait: Alan Berliner

What is in a name? According to Alan Berliner, everything. The independent filmmaker from New York visited the Walker many times over the course of 2002 as an artist in residence, exploring the social, political, and historical contexts of the family nomenclature. Berliner’s work centered on his documentary The Sweetest Sound and integrated five digital […]

Berliner during his year-long residency at the Walker in 2002.

Berliner during his year-long residency at the Walker in 2001.

What is in a name? According to Alan Berliner, everything. The independent filmmaker from New York visited the Walker many times over the course of 2002 as an artist in residence, exploring the social, political, and historical contexts of the family nomenclature. Berliner’s work centered on his documentary The Sweetest Sound and integrated five digital projects that questioned our associations with our names. For much of his life, Berliner was frustrated that he was frequently mistaken for other people with his same name. In The Sweetest Sound, he tracks down and invites twelve other Alan Berliners from around the world to a dinner party and investigates their shared identity. The Walker also screened Nobody’s Business and Intimate Strangers, companion documentaries about Berliner’s father.

His digital projects at the Walker shifted the focus to his audience and questioned the ways that names connect people. These interactive activities included a phone call to another visitor in the gallery to tell a “name story” or signing a digital screen that compiled all the signatures into an abstract video painting. To welcome guests, Berliner created an installation in the Walker lobby that documented the names of the 18,244 people who lived within a three mile radius of the art center. These discussions about genealogy and name calling continued throughout his year of residence through an online forum on Café Utne cohosted with Walker Curator Sheryl Mousley. To partake in some of Berliner’s name experiments, visit his Language of Names page.

Prior to his residency, Berliner’s films were featured in the “Lost Images Regained” programing. This series highlighted filmmakers who utilized found footage throughout their work. In conversation with Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács, Berliner discussed his process of transforming old material into something new in his films Everywhere At Once, City Edition, and The Family Album (all screened as part of the series). Berliner’s other work ranges from experimental film essays to personal documentary. He has created various projects since the late 1970s and his latest film, First Cousin Once Removed, debuted at the New York Film Festival in 2012.

Filmmaker Portrait: Julie Dash

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors. Distributors regarded Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) as a foreign film. During her Regis Dialogue […]

Julie Dash

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors.

Distributors regarded Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) as a foreign film. During her Regis Dialogue at the Walker, she said that many distribution agencies found it to be a compelling film, but they insisted no audiences would be interested in watching it. Despite recognition at the Sundance Film Festival (Arthur Jafa won the Cinematography award for his work), every major and minor distribution company turned it down. Finally Kino International decided to distribute it because the agency thought of it as an international film. Julie Dash liked that idea: “It was a foreign film. It’s so different from mainstream America.” Daughters of the Dust was the first full-length film by an African American woman distributed theatrically.

Daughters of the Dust was first screened at the Walker in March of 1992 during a “New Women’s Cinema” festival organized by the Film/Video department. The festival was meant to celebrate the huge achievements that female directors had recently made with feature productions. It screened the day before the film was to open theatrically at the University Film Society. Daughters of the Dust takes place at the beginning of the 20th century and focuses on people of the Gullah Culture on the Sea Islands. It has two narrators, an unborn baby and a great grandmother, and is about the changing times on an island which was once specifically for slaves. The film exemplifies the diversity of the African American community, voicing the contrasting beliefs of various generations. The stunning visuals allow the audience to experience the beautiful landscape and guide viewers along a story that doesn’t necessarily need words to tell.

When Dash first started the project, she wanted it to be a silent film but knew that audiences would be less than enthusiastic. She decided to have the cast speak in the Gullah dialect to focus on the beautifully composed shots rather than the dialogue. She mentioned later on in her Regis Dialogue that she grew up learning how to translate different dialects like Irish or Italian and she wanted a new dialect to be featured and accepted in film. When she finished the film, she was told to redub the entire film into English, or at least into a southern accent so that audiences could understand it better. She refused. Dash knew she was breaking the rules with this film and that was a conscious decision.

Dash’s first visit to the Walker was in 1993 for a Regis Dialogue titled “American Playhouse.” Dash was an American Playhouse director, a PBS series which brought classic and original drama and fiction to TV audiences. At the Walker, Dash discussed the changing film environment brought on by a growth of African American directors with producer Lyndsay Law. This dialogue was part of the Juneteenth Film Festival: a celebration to honor African American filmmakers. There were multiple events around the Twin Cities that weekend including workshops, screenings and filmmaker forums. This event helped bring the community together to celebrate an underrepresented group of artists.

Dash was a member of the film group LA Rebellion with notable directors like Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima. African American filmmakers who attended UCLA film school during the 70’s and 80’s and who created a new kind of cinema formed this group. Daughters of the Dust was Dash’s 11th film and her first full length feature. It pushed film-goers to consider what stories were commonly told and who was creating those stories.

Filmmaker Portrait: Pauline Kael

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors. The artists that the Walker invites for visits span media, including journalism and the literary arts, making […]

Pauline Kale

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors.

The artists that the Walker invites for visits span media, including journalism and the literary arts, making for an exciting array of guests. While much of the hubbub at the Walker in August of 1998 was about Jonathan Demme’s upcoming dialogue, there was also buzz about the critic leading the interview. Pauline Kael, the interviewer joining Jonathan Demme, was one of the leading film critics who encouraged his work as a director and knew him personally. Kael, known for her controversial opinions and lengthy reviews in the New Yorker, was well established in the United States in the second half of the 20th century.

Bruce Jenkins, Film/Video curator at the time, explained to the audience before the talk that it was a difficult task to convince Kael to visit the Walker Art Center, but he was able to persuade her to stay for two days. During the talk, Kael mentioned to the audience that she typically doesn’t do these kinds of interviews but felt this one might expand her film perspective. Jenkins’s next step was picking who to have the dialogue with Kael, and after mulling over different filmmakers, he and Kael came to the conclusion that bringing Jonathan Demme would be the best choice.

Kael had written numerous reviews of Demme’s films. She had always been excited about his “focus on the kitsch” and how he was able to transform it into art. Demme mentioned that if Kael liked a certain film of yours it’s “such a spectacular feeling—­­­you read these things over and over.” Kael didn’t always write positively about his work, though, and Demme said those reviews were ones you only read once. At one point in their discussion, Kael mentioned that she didn’t have time to review Married to the Mob being that she was on vacation. She couldn’t help herself and started to review the film on stage in front of Demme and the audience. She mentioned that she enjoyed the film but she thought the ending was lacking—specifically the use of outtakes. The audience began to lightly boo, but Kael just laughed, saying, “I welcome your disagreement.”

The criticism didn’t bother Demme however. He sounded star-struck during their dialogue. He mentioned that he was “really having a spectacular experience this evening,” noting that not only was he at the Walker, talking in front of Walker patrons, but also was sitting next to Pauline Kael. Demme gushed that, “even before you’re a filmmaker —just a film enthusiast, one reads Pauline Kael in a certain way—agree or not—there is point of view present —an artistry in the presentation of the thoughts that arise in her mind from seeing a movie that is extraordinary to be confronted with as a movie-goer.”

At the time of her visit, Kael was discouraged by how much impact marketing had on which films stayed in theaters longer, and thus reached a larger audience. She told Twin Cities Reader, “what kills you about all this is that there are so few movies that are really good, that when the good ones don’t get promoted and nobody knows about them and instead people go to all of this crap and—what happens is they wonder why movies are so lousy.”  She mentioned that she didn’t think that Demme was getting the full recognition he needed. As a film critic, she was on the lookout for exciting new filmmakers. Pedro Almodovar especially impressed her at the time.

Kael seemed to mostly keep to herself during the visit and the dialogue was her only planned Twin Cities event. Through correspondence though, we know that she was impressed by Minnesotan wild rice. Few dialogues at the Walker have half of the audience questions directed to the interviewer, but Kael proved that the critic can be just as interesting as the artist. Kael was a remarkable voice in the world of film criticism and she truly graced the stage at the Walker.

Walker Veteran Miranda July Returns with Performance Piece New Society

Miranda July is an artist traversing many mediums. From film to fiction, performance art to installation, July explores the complicated ways that humans communicate. She is frequently at the center of her art—writing, directing, and acting in her own films and performances. July last visited the Walker in 2011 to introduce her latest film, The […]

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Miranda July is an artist traversing many mediums. From film to fiction, performance art to installation, July explores the complicated ways that humans communicate. She is frequently at the center of her art—writing, directing, and acting in her own films and performances. July last visited the Walker in 2011 to introduce her latest film, The Future (her post-screening discussion of the film is available on the Walker Channel), the bizarre tale of a couple whose world falls apart when they decide to adopt a cat. She returns this week for the world premiere of a performance work called New Society that pushes the limits of audience collaboration. She was also here in June of 2000 to perform an excerpt from The Swan Tool and to screen I Saw Bones and Nest of Tens. Her film Me and You and Everyone We Know screened in Women with Vision in May 2005. Finally, Getting Stronger Every Day screened at Walker in 2002 for Women with Vision. Tickets are on sale now for the October 30 and 31 performances.

July’s art is instantly recognizable: colorful palettes, content without context, tender confessions, and audience integration. From a hallway adorned with comically ominous text to a series of emails from celebrities that all address the same topic, July manages to create an experience that feels both personal and universal. Her newest experiment is the Somebody app: a program that allows you to communicate with friends by delivering your message verbally through a stranger who is in their proximity. The Walker plays host to the app this fall, operating as a hub for interaction.

Since the mid-90s, July has been building an impressive body of work. To learn more, visit her website that features a comprehensive chronicle of all her creations.

Filmmaker Portraits: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad

To celebrate the Walker’s 75th anniversary, Crosscuts will feature a series of filmmakers who have visited the art center over the last few decades.  Consistently featured in the Walker’s Women with Vision series, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad  is Iran’s most renowned female filmmaker. She modulates between documentary and narrative features, but her honest portrayal of the social and […]

To celebrate the Walker’s 75th anniversary, Crosscuts will feature a series of filmmakers who have visited the art center over the last few decades. 

Consistently featured in the Walker’s Women with Vision series, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad  is Iran’s most renowned female filmmaker. She modulates between documentary and narrative features, but her honest portrayal of the social and political issues in Iran remains constant. In April of 2010, she taught a master class at the Walker that addressed issues of authenticity and outlined strategies for how to capture restricted areas on film. Media censorship in Iran is incredibly strict: women cannot be seen wearing any type of revealing clothing, men and women cannot be physically close on screen, Western ideology is curtailed, and there can be no expression of negativity toward religion without due reason. Despite these limitations, Iranian cinema is one of the most thriving film cultures in the world. According to The Atlantic, There are more female filmmakers in Iran than there are in America.

Whether documentary or fiction, Bani-Etemad’s films highlight the resilience of the modern Iranian woman. She has managed to skirt portrayals of prostitutes, love triangles, women’s rights activists, and drug dealing past the Iranian censors. She is also the first woman to ever receive the award for Best Director at the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran. Bani-Etemad works closely with her daughter, Baran Kosari, who is an actress that has played roles in many of her features.

A variety of Bani-Etemad’s films have screened at the Walker, from 2003’s Our Times, a documentary about Iran’s 2001 elections in which 48 women ran for president, to 2006’s Gilanah which confronts the horrors of war in Iran and Iraq through the eyes of a mother and her pregnant daughter. She also introduced a screening of her film Mainline during her 2010 visit to the Twin Cities. Bani-Etemad’s latest film—Tales—premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in late August.

Vampire Western in Farsi Makes Minneapolis Premiere in the Walker Cinema

This weekend the Walker Cinema starts its weekend run of the Sundance hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Director Ana Lily Amirpour was nominated today for Breakthrough Director for the Gotham Independent Film Awards. Amirpour started making short horror films at age 12 and makes her directorial debut (produced by Elijah Wood) in […]

Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Photo courtesy Kino Lorber 2014

Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Photo: Kino Lorber, 2014

This weekend the Walker Cinema starts its weekend run of the Sundance hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Director Ana Lily Amirpour was nominated today for Breakthrough Director for the Gotham Independent Film Awards. Amirpour started making short horror films at age 12 and makes her directorial debut (produced by Elijah Wood) in this feature about love, loneliness, and a skateboarding vampire.

So far only a French-subtitled trailer exists, but this in no way deters from appreciating the enveloping black-and-white contrast Amirpour skillfully uses to tie us to Bad City—a place ridden with sorrow and desperate characters.

Simultaneously chilling and charming, Amirpour’s casting of Sheila Vand as the vampire (“The Girl”) is one of the more remarkable leads I’ve seen in awhile. Vand instills the same level of terror as Halloween’s Michael Myers—a slow and silent walk in pursuit of her victims, with sudden appearances as she makes her attacks. Otherwise, she travels around at night on her skateboard and one evening encounters Arash—a human she instantly sympathizes with as he innocently asks for help getting home.

Amirpour plays with the horror genre in an entirely new way, as we soon see equal instances of Vand protecting certain townspeople and killing others. It’s a film in which all the characters are victims—both of themselves and the consequences of their choices, but the combination of romance, horror, and western ultimately delivers a tale of fun.

You can purchase tickets for screenings this weekend and a special Halloween screening at 7:30 pm next Friday.

Film without Film: Derek Jarman’s Blue

When filmmaker Derek Jarman publicly declared himself HIV positive in 1987, he acknowledged that the public would “expect” a response within his work. “I left it as long as possible, because making a film about illness is jolly difficult.” The result is Blue (1993), a 35mm film comprising a single and continuous 79-minute image of […]

An exhibition installation of Derek Jarman's Blue at the Walker

An exhibition installation of Derek Jarman’s Blue at the Walker

When filmmaker Derek Jarman publicly declared himself HIV positive in 1987, he acknowledged that the public would “expect” a response within his work. “I left it as long as possible, because making a film about illness is jolly difficult.” The result is Blue (1993), a 35mm film comprising a single and continuous 79-minute image of International Klein Blue (IKB), accompanied by a voice-over in the form of Jarman’s personal autobiography.

Now an iconic piece of cinema, this film emerged from many different incarnations and displays. In fact, Jarman went through several titles before settling on Blue. Here are a few of them:

Blue protects white from innocence

Blue is Poison

Blueprint

Bruises

Forget-Me-Not

Into the Blue

My Blue Heaven

O

Speedwell Eyes

Most memorably, though, it was earlier referred to as Bliss—a title which adorns Jarman’s hand-painted notebook of the same name. Jarman initially thought of Blue in the form of a performance, wherein songs, poems, and tracts meditating on the immateriality of Yves Klein’s work would be recited. As his biographer, Tony Peake, notes, the dramatis personae would include “Klein himself, St. Rita, the Knights of St. Sebastian, and IKB, a blue, mercurial messenger of the gods.”

Title page of Derek Jarman's 'Bliss Book.' Collection: Estate of Derek Jarman

Title page of Derek Jarman’s Bliss Book. Collection: Estate of Derek Jarman

Blue is often described as a film without image, a film without materiality. In this way, the work could be said to follow the logic of avant-garde structuralist filmmaking. But this description of a dematerialized film is not only a conceptual interpretation of the work, but also a description of some of the ways in which this film practically functioned. Although its primary release was to cinema distribution, the BBC broadcast a “simul-cast”: presenting an audio dub version of Blue on the radio; and distributed a postcard of IKB, so that its audience could gaze upon the colored card in the privacy of their homes and listen along with their transistor radios. Similar incarnations of the film appear in poster form, performance, and television. Blue was thus not only a film emptied of image, but it could be a film without film, a film without cinema.

The Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection houses a pristine 35mm celluloid print of Blue, soon to be shown as part of the forthcoming “Commemorating Derek Jarman” film series, and screened in relation to Jarman’s approach to his filmic apparatus. But when the Walker originally presented the film in the galleries (outside of the cinema context), conservation concerns over wearing down and scratching this 35mm print through months of looped projection led to a different solution: a flickering projector (aided by a piece of kit called “The Flicker-O-Meter,” whose manual can be found in the Walker archives) would beam through a projection window coated with a blue gel. This filmless projector would thus throw a perfectly IKB shade, accompanied by a CD dub of the soundtrack. Again, Blue was a film without film.

Both then and now, Jarman’s masterpiece raises intriguing technical questions of how to show a film, particularly regarding its digital presentations. While a recent transfer of Blue from 35mm to Blu-Ray has offered a new standard for the digital presentation of the film, questions of display has now turned to the surface on which the work should be projected, most notably with a recent screening of the work at the IMAX in London where the modern screen, which is digital and 3D-ready, was noted in returning a slightly different shade of Blue.

Such technological queries are explicitly foregrounded by Blue’s simplicity and minimalism. Indeed, throughout his career, Jarman was acutely aware of the properties and limits of the mediums in which he worked, most notably his love of Super-8 as a “cinema of small gestures.” So too, the flicker of 35mm celluloid insists on a filmic grain that emulates the original material and surface of IKB: the painted canvas — Jarman’s first medium as an artist.

As Blue fluidly migrates between the medium of celluloid, digital, audio, and the printed page, the primary concern of the work — the depiction of Jarman’s experience of HIV and AIDS — also leverages its power from the ineffable. The virus, and the experience of it, lacks an iconic image, body, or definition that can fully convey the overwhelming devastation and the complexity of its occurrence. AIDS necessarily exists in multiplicity of people, narratives, and times. By the time Jarman came to finishing Blue, complications from AIDS-related illness and its treatments had left him partially sighted, leaving a haze of blue in place of vision.

Emptying out the image, removing the comfortable props and traditions of cinema in favor of a filmless and perhaps even placeless meditation thus offers a glimpse of the unfamiliar landscape that Jarman rendered in parallel to his own life with and death from AIDS.

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