Blogs Crosscuts Walker Film

A Community to Think Through: The Origins of the Bentson Critical Group

The Bentson Critical Group (BCG) is a monthly discussion forum that explores ideas around the history and contemporary development of artists’ moving image practice. Hosted by the Walker Art Center since 2015, the BCG is comprised of academics, programmers, and artists who work with moving image in the Twin Cities, and who have begun to present […]

Frank and Caroline Mouris, Frank Film, 1973. Walker Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Frank and Caroline Mouris, Frank Film, 1973. Featured in the Mediatheque BCG playlist The Politics of the Domestic, Walker Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

The Bentson Critical Group (BCG) is a monthly discussion forum that explores ideas around the history and contemporary development of artists’ moving image practice. Hosted by the Walker Art Center since 2015, the BCG is comprised of academics, programmers, and artists who work with moving image in the Twin Cities, and who have begun to present their research and discussion via a series of curated film programs in the Walker Mediatheque. The founder of the BCG, the Walker’s Bentson Moving Image Scholar, Mason Leaver-Yap, describes the origins of this group and the interlinked conditions and ambitions that informed its structure.

On Saturday February 25, at 7 pm in the Mediatheque, a selection of BCG members will take part in a screening and open discussion in relation to the artistic practice of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers. The event  “…I’m not a filmmaker,” a panel discussion, is an opportunity for the group to share ideas, questions, practice, and scholarship that they have been investigating in the monthly forum with a wider public audience.

The medium of artists’ moving image is intrinsically relational and networked. It continually seeks out other people, both in terms of resources for its production as well as its exhibition and distribution. Conversations (which are themselves another form of distribution) that naturally flow in and around such work are surely one of the greatest strengths of the medium. But following, instigating, and sustaining such dialogue—not simply around individual videos, films, or installations, but also an ongoing critical approach to the medium as a whole—is still something that an art institution must endeavor to engage with and make public.

The formal and highly institutionalized formats of a public symposium, panel debate, or Q&A session have useful but salient limits to conversation. Often, these formats self-select knowledge (where an art organization gets to choose works and speakers on behalf of a presumed audience—and often prioritize speakers’ commentary over audience response). These forums, by dint of their public nature, also miss out on more intimate dialogue: that well-observed comment that we hear from a friend as we exit the cinema, what we discuss over a coffee after seeing an exhibition together, the conversation shared in the back of a cab about what should be shown more, less, better at the Walker.

How, then, does a single curator, programmer or scholar (perhaps seated upstairs in an office, or else working remotely from Europe) listen and usefully react to the casual but well-informed conversations that are already taking place inside of the Walker cinema, galleries, and café, as well as beyond its walls? And how does the Walker recognize and foster these intimacies without being overly prescriptive and generic in its programming? These were some of the first and perhaps most urgent questions that emerged when I was asked to make recommendations on how to best open up the Walker’s moving image holdings, the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, to a wider audience.

Aware that the Twin Cities has long housed a thriving and highly active contemporary art community—whose work with the moving image continues to span nonprofit film festivals and monthly cinema screenings, as well as a number of art college courses dedicated to and including modules in film and video—it was clear that the Walker didn’t need to instigate a conversation but find a way of listening to what was already there. We knew students already had their own discursive forums as part of their studies, but what programs were serving those teaching students, programming the film festivals, and showing their work within the city?

In the fall of 2014, during an academics and educator’s symposium, the Walker Moving Image department put out an open call to artists, programmers, and educators (essentially all those no longer in full-time education). Under the heading of “The Bentson Critical Group,” the invitation announced the Walker’s intention to host a peer-led discussion and screening group that would meet at the Walker once a month to explore ideas around moving image practice. As a material basis for discussion, we offered to give the group access to the Bentson Collection to screen in the Walker Mediatheque. The group was not under pressure to work towards any single outcome, though we were open to finding ways that the group could publish its ideas and present its projects for an audience. The only remit of the BCG was to find ways of talking across and circumventing the usually siloed institutional knowledges and skills around moving image, and share ideas across a community that is united by the medium of artists’ moving image and its history.

The openness of this format and its fluidity was strongly influenced by specific precursors. While of course the role of a self-organized education group is nothing new (and owes much to the structures of consciousness-raising groups and action learning), the BCG specifically stemmed from looking at two learning initiatives developed by LUX, a British distribution agency for artist moving image: firstly, the Associated Artists Programme that was headed up by artist and writer Ian White, and secondly, the Critical Forums initiated by Benjamin Cook. Both of these education initiatives had sought to create mutually supportive contexts that centered on creative and intellectual development. While comprised of artists, both the AAP and the Critical Forums discouraged artists from showing their own films and videos, and instead it applied critical discourse as the main subject for discussion.

While the initial meetings of the BCG included a range of individuals from various disciplines including teachers (involved in both high school and college-level education), public programmers, and filmmakers, what everyone had in common was the impulse of learning. Whether showing people how to confidently develop and project 16mm film without intimidation, demonstrating different technologies used for video animation, or teaching the history of experimental film, each individual was in some senses a teacher. The consequence was an instant desire to exchange knowledge. But unlike the traditional pedagogical structures of teacher-student, the BCG held the tension of a leaderless group that had no fixed outcome as a productive paradox. This was a project that was always bound to seek its own autonomy and develop a self-sustaining dialogue across disciplines, a dialogue that would hold artists moving image at its heart.

The intentions and ideas about what the BCG should be and do emerged from the group’s parallel discussions of showing and discussing artwork from the Bentson Collection. One of the key activities that surfaced from the group was the collective curation of a set of film programs, which would recontextualize and focus attention on specific works from the Benton Collection. Presented as publicly accessible playlists within the Walker’s newly renovated Mediatheque, the BCG programs presented ways of rethinking works in relation to one another and their political and cultural relevance to our present moment. In December 2016, the BCG launched Politics of the Domestic, its first public playlist (still on view in the Mediatheque), a program of short experimental films from the 1960s to the present day that questions the impact of advertising and design on our everyday lives. Its recent program Infrastructures launched at the beginning of February, exploring the visible and invisible infrastructures that undergird our experiences of the built environment. And soon the BCG will present members’ own works and ideas as part of “…I’m not a filmmaker,” a panel discussion about personal works and scholarship that challenge and expand upon Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers’s filmic practice.

As someone who has always worked remotely for the Walker (I am based in Glasgow and Berlin, commuting to the Walker twice a year), my proximity to the group and its activity was, by equal turns, problematically and productively distant. In the time since its very first meeting in 2015, the BCG has become a full self-organized entity, and so my description of it—or indeed any singly authored voice that attempts to encapsulate the thoughts and actions of a collective—should always be understood as a limited position from which to describe the BCG’s current composition and working methods.

As one of the Walker members of the BCG recently noted regarding my task of trying to write this very text, it is a challenge to write “about a collective experiment designed to grow organically and remain somewhat fluid and undefined, not to mention writing about something you haven’t been able to actively participate in.” And so, with this limitation nonetheless braided with joy, I can say that the merits of the BCG cannot be fully articulated by descriptions of it, but by its actions, projects and presentations.

 

Lovesong’s Longing: An Interview with So Yong Kim

So Yong Kim’s fourth feature film, Lovesong, weaves a delicate tale of two women navigating the shifting terrain of adulthood while they tease out a new intimacy within their relationship. Kim brings her own restrained touch to this variant of the road trip classic genre, expanding it beyond the formulaic to a sharp examination of longing […]

Yo Song Kim's Lovesong 2016 Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

Yo Song Kim’s Lovesong, 2016. Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

So Yong Kim’s fourth feature film, Lovesong, weaves a delicate tale of two women navigating the shifting terrain of adulthood while they tease out a new intimacy within their relationship. Kim brings her own restrained touch to this variant of the road trip classic genre, expanding it beyond the formulaic to a sharp examination of longing and broken connections. The natural chemistry between Sarah (Riley Keough) and Mindy (Jena Malone), their nuance and gesture, gives voice to all the unexpressed emotions simmering beneath the surface. Every flickering smile and tentative touch recalls one’s own nearly there romances.

Kim’s first feature, In Between Days, debuted at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where it received a Special Jury Prize for Independent Vision. In advance of the February 10–12 screenings of Lovesong in the Walker Cinema, Kim discussed her personal philosophy of filmmaking, the practical realities of making a film come alive and how a single scene helped her short film develop into a feature.

Hayleigh Thompson: Lovesong focuses on the evolving relationship between two friends who reconnect at different points in their life. Knowing that a lot of your work has autobiographical elements, what was it that initially drew you to explore this unique love story?

So Yong Kim: I’m drawing from a crush experience I had while I was in college. I think emotionally it’s very true to that memory, but the events are quite different. It’s emotionally connected to me. I think that now that I’m getting older I have a certain sense of regret about some things that I didn’t act on or didn’t follow through with. I think I just wanted to explore decision making: how you make your decisions to get to where you are.

We initially did part one as a short film to see if I could do a short film about this road trip between two friends. I wasn’t really sure at that time if the film could be a feature. So we shot it with two friends who were not busy at the time and got some people together with a little bit of financing for that. We shot mainly around the house we were living at the time in Pennsylvania, very rural, about two and a half hours northwest of the city. We shot this film in six days, and I wasn’t really sure if it was going to be even a narrative short.

I wanted to make something mainly because I was waiting to cast this other film that I wrote, which is about an aging mother. It was getting to the point where I felt like I wasn’t making or telling any sort of story. I was going through these doubts in my head: Am I even a filmmaker, a storyteller? So then I just got people together and wrote a “scriptment,” a half script and half treatment, for part one which was a road trip between two friends from college at slightly different stages after college. One is married, while the other is still a fun-loving free spirit. I didn’t know until we got the footage that we could really do a feature.

Thompson: You have previously worked with both Riley Keough and Jena Malone. As a director who also functions as a writer and an editor, how important is casting for you when working on a new project?

Kim: I feel like in many ways your job as a director is 80 percent done if you can cast the perfect, most incredible, talented actor. Right? But it could also be a complete non-actor too who fits the story and can bring the film alive. I think that’s really, really amazing. At the same time, if you are one of the A-list directors, like P.T. Anderson or Scorsese, you can call people and ask them to be in in your film. But many filmmakers, like myself, are at the mercy of casting directors or people who know somebody who might know somebody and you have to go through that process. You don’t always get your number-one choices, but on Lovesong I was really lucky to be able to get these two actors who had their time free. Jena had four days open that summer, and Riley had six days exactly, and they overlapped three and a half days. I begged Jena and Riley and I got really, really lucky. You just do your best to get the best people to be part of your creative process.

Thompson: You mentioned that this film was originally based on a “scriptment,” meaning it was more loosely written than your previous work. How did this change the filmmaking process for you?

Kim: The scriptment was all I had time for. On my two previous films, I spent a year and a half or two years to write the script exactly how I would like it to be, but this was something that I felt like, why don’t I just let that control, obsessive thing go, and then really focus on just sketching out these scenes that are broad brush strokes. Then once we were on set some of the crucial scenes had dialogue in it, but then I have to say when Jena and Riley took the scene off the page it was so much better. They were just so good. It was so inspiring. I loved it. It was magical for me.

Thompson: You also work as your own editor. Did the looser framework change the editing process for you?

Kim: It does, but then it doesn’t. In Between Days, my first film, was with two non-actors. I would say their lines to them and they would repeat them, but then they went go off the book a lot of the time, too, so we experimented a lot. I think from that point on I really learned you have to mold your material. I’ve gotten used to finding gems in the material to make the film and the story come alive.

You know the scene when they are on the Ferris wheel? That was the key moment for me—also the drinking game scene at night—but that moment when they are going on the Ferris wheel and they are just looking at each other and screaming, that was the moment where I was like, “Oh, I have to make this film into a feature!” This is such a gift. It’s like magic. If I could just have this moment, three of these moments, then I have a movie. I had that one in part one, and the drinking game a bit, and the whole night club stuff. You have that one gift and you have go for it! Go, go, go, go, go!

Yo Song Kim's Lovesong 2016 Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

Yo Song Kim’s Lovesong, 2016. Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

Thompson: Throughout the film you focus on Sarah’s face, prioritizing shots of her reactions rather than showing those speaking to or around her. Was this something that arose on set or in the editing process?

Kim: I think since In Between Days Brad [Rust Gray] and I have our own way of going through the emotions of the characters and what it means to be with a character and be really intimate with a character in the scene. I don’t think it’s so much about seeing people on screen talk; it’s about what kind of reactions you get from the person who is listening or might not be listening or thinking about something else. So in any given scene it’s a lot about the scene before that came to this moment when these two people are talking and the scene afterwards. How that character gets affected by what has been told to them or how extensively they allow themselves to be exposed or vulnerable or what have you. So I find that often times when people are talking, it’s more important when they are not talking, perhaps. It depends on the content. I think that’s the general, very broad, general philosophy Brad and I have in putting the scene together and the edit and also building the whole film.

Thompson: One of the most pivotal discussions between Sarah and Mindy takes place entirely in voiceover. Would you say this is the culmination of the philosophy that you were talking about?

Kim: Yes. It is, actually. [Laughs]  That moment there, I call it the magical walk at the end because this is like something that I think in my head but not necessarily something people would gather. The reason I ended up with that approach at the end, when they are doing the magical walk, is because Riley was quite sick that day, so we were very limited about much and how many times we could do that whole entire section. I ended up doing a lot of the walks not thinking that was going to have their talk over the image of them walking, but by the time we landed on the rock where they’re supposed to have this discussion together it was like fighting the battle of the light going down and then also her flu. So then, in the edit, I put that magical walk together with them talking and then seeing the expressions on their faces. Thankfully it worked but it was not something that I planned.

Thompson: A primary theme throughout your filmography, and Lovesong in particular, seems to be liminality—from Sarah and Mindy’s shifting relationship to their constant travel, even the way characters seem to float on the periphery of the frame. Is liminality something you find yourself consciously focusing on?

Kim: Yes. My husband and I move from city to city like every four years, so we’ve been kind of nomads. I had a very nomadic childhood. I always find it so interesting that feeling of not quite belonging. Wanting to belong is such a human quality. I think that’s one of the human natures that we all have.That’s definitely, for me, what is worthwhile exploring, because I think it’s something we all try to ignore or face or tackle or understand no matter what phase in life you might be in. You might be in a relationship but you still feel like, “Whoa, we are going through a transition, we are not here or there.” I think it’s such a common human experience. I have to say, though, now that I’m getting older, I’m not any better at understanding it. [Laughs]

Hell’s Paradise, Shattered Landscapes: Zhao Liang on Behemoth

From shattered landscape to hospital bed to the ghost towns of paradise, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth, is a complex reflection on the cost of industrialization. Led into the iron mines of Mongolia by the poetry of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Zhao confronts viewers with the empirical realization of industrial-capitalist idealism. The imbalances are vast. Through this passage […]

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015 Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015. Photo courtesy Grasshopper

From shattered landscape to hospital bed to the ghost towns of paradise, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth, is a complex reflection on the cost of industrialization. Led into the iron mines of Mongolia by the poetry of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Zhao confronts viewers with the empirical realization of industrial-capitalist idealism. The imbalances are vast. Through this passage emerge questions: for whom is this empty paradise built? Is the human and environmental price worth the pursuit of the ideal? Thus begins our own journey of reflection and self-examination.

Zhao’s work has been exhibited at a number of Walker events, including the 2010 Expanding the Frame series, the 2009 exhibition Zhao Liang: Heavy Sleepers, 2003’s How Latitudes Become Forms, and as part of the 2002 Dig.It Festival of Digital Media. In advance of Behemoth’s February 3–5 screenings in the Walker Cinema, Zhao discussed his experiences in the mind, the film’s symbolism, and its relation to his visual art.

Kelsey Bosch: You cite Dante’s Divine Comedy as a major influence for this film. When did you first read it, and how did it impact you?

Zhao Liang: It was during my shoot at the mine that I actually started reading the Divine Comedy. The first time I saw the continuous lifeless mine crater I felt like I had arrived at hell. Every time I came to these mines I would update my WeChat moment: “Back to hell again.” My producer, Sylvie Blum, reminded me to read the Divine Comedy, so I started it. I found the description of hell—going down level by level—so similar to the mines I saw. Afterward, I picked the structure of Divine Comedy to structure my film.

Bosch: Were you able to develop relationships with the people you filmed and hear their perspective on the environmental and humanitarian concerns addressed in Behemoth?

Zhao: We do have communication. The mine workers know that they are destroying the natural environment, but they also think it’s fairly natural to do so, since those mine resources are there for utilization, otherwise it would be a waste. More importantly for them, it is to make a living that they do such dangerous, dirty, and tired work.

Bosch: After your experiences at the mine, where do you see the global economy headed?

Zhao: I’m not so good at global economic problems, but my first reaction to those scenes is that human beings are cutting their own throats to ruin themselves. If we think deeply, we have to ask: have human beings gone on a wrong path? Was there any other possibility since the invention of the steam engine? Or has the dark side of the profit chain prevented the development of solar energy? Those are all my guesses. But I’m sure that the greed of human beings brought about the situation today.

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015 Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth 2015. Photo courtesy Grasshopper

Bosch: There are a number of visual symbols in Behemoth: red/blue screens, darkness/lightness, fire, and, most notably, the mirror and the “shattered” landscape. It reminds me of Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, in which the cloaked figure with a mirror face follows Deren, or The Blood of a Poet by Jean Cocteau, in which the mirror was a sort of porthole between reality and surreality. What about the mirror and/or reflection interested you in regards to Behemoth?

Zhao: In the film, I used several colors to represent the three realms: red and black represent the hell, gray represents purgatory, and blue, ironically, represents paradise. The pneumoconiosis patients who carry the mirror represent the poet Virgil, who leads Dante.

The naked guy in the broken mirror represents “me”—and is also Dante himself. The mirror being carried on the back and the broken mirror echoed each other.

The black frame symbolizes death. The broken mirror also symbolizes broken mountains and rivers. The mirrored image is also an illusory image as well as one of self-reflection.

Bosch: You developed a rich soundscape in Behemoth, between sounds of industry and the human body. Can you describe the soundscape you experienced while filming and how it influenced the work?

Zhao: Sounds are a vital part of this nondialogue film. I often became confused by some sounds while shooting, such as the huge noise of shattered ores. You start to think it’s very rhythmic electric music after hearing it for a while; you might even want to dance. The sound of iron flowing from the iron mine factory and the sound of explosions all gave me unlimited imagination. During post-production, besides designing the sound contrast of silence and noise, I also asked the composer to incorporate some of the live-recorded industry noise into the environment sound track. It sounds like music but is very obscure.

Bosch: You’ve participated in Walker Art Center’s Expanding the Frame program and seem to cross back and forth from more experimental or installation-based moving image art and cinematic features. How do you approach these different formats, and what interests you about each? Do you work in other media as well?

Zhao: Besides film, I’m more interested in video arts because I can express myself more freely. Since graduating from fine art school I have been working in contemporary art, and making film was a coincidence. In the ’90s, China was seeing dramatic changes, even daily. We were immerged in new social problems more frequently than ever than before, so I wanted to record everything while the official media was busy boasting or lying. To record reality feels like rescuing your treasure from a fire disaster. After 20 years, I feel like the documentaries and video art I made are somehow not so well connected. I want to enjoy the making of films as much as I do making video artworks. Behemoth is my first try.

Storylines/Bloodlines: Robert Redford and Grandson Talk Family, Film, and the Power of Narrative

Like many family patriarchs, Dylan Redford’s grandfather, now 80, is a wealth of stories. He speaks of growing up in a diverse, working-class LA neighborhood, heading off to college in Colorado, time “on the bum” as an itinerant art student in Europe in the 1950s, and facing an array of work and family triumphs and challenges. But, unlike […]

Dylan Redford with father X and grandfather Robert, c. 1994. Photo courtesy the Redford family

Dylan Redford reads a Catwoman comic with grandfather Robert and father James, c. 1994. Photo courtesy the Redford family

Like many family patriarchs, Dylan Redford’s grandfather, now 80, is a wealth of stories. He speaks of growing up in a diverse, working-class LA neighborhood, heading off to college in Colorado, time “on the bum” as an itinerant art student in Europe in the 1950s, and facing an array of work and family triumphs and challenges. But, unlike many of our grandparents’ tales, in this case, such stories told and retold among family are supplemented by far more public ones: those shared with millions on movie screens worldwide.

In an intimate conversation, Redford discusses the power of storytelling with his grandfather, actor, director, and Sundance founder Robert Redford. Narrative is a theme near and dear to the Redford family: Dylan—an artist, gallerist, and the Walker’s Bentson Research Associate—follows in the steps of his grandfather and his father, documentary filmmaker James Redford (whose film Rethinking Dyslexia takes Dylan as its subject). In advance of Redford’s November 12 Walker Dialogue with critic Amy Taubin, he and Dylan discuss celebrity, the role of painting in the film star’s life, and his announcement that he’ll soon be retiring from acting.

Dylan Redford: I’ve been thinking lately about just how important storytelling is in our family—how one of the things you really instilled is the sense that storytelling could make a difference, could change the world. Where did that come from?

Robert Redford: That all started when I was a little teeny kid. When I was growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, nobody had much, and so therefore it was really about how you heard—and told—stories. I was a very rambunctious kid and I was always up late, and so to calm me down, my dad would tell me a story before bed. Most of the time, he would make one up, and it had a huge impact on me, storytelling. Then there was a radio program in the 1940s on Saturday morning called, Let’s Pretend, which was all about storytelling and really had an impact on me. As I grew up and moved into the business myself, that obviously was going to be a huge component.

It became such a big part of my life that when I had a family, I felt the need to carry that tradition forward, so I would tell my kids—Shauna and Jamie and then Amy—stories. I would try to impress on them how important storytelling was, so we’d be having dinner and I’d say, “Okay, what’s your story today? What happened today that is a story for you?”

Dylan: But you didn’t always tell stories through film. There’s this whole part early in your career when you were a painter. I’m wondering how you think about those years in relation to storytelling and to the impact on your subsequent filmmaking.

Robert: I started out as an artist when I was 18 or 19 years old. I wanted to get out of this country and experience different ways of seeing the world. So I went to Europe, but I went as an artist. I was increasing my skill set and exploring storytelling through painting. Doing that, I realized how much I loved it. Later, when I became an actor, I suffered for four or five years not being sure I wanted to be in that business because I so wanted to be an artist. I just wanted to paint and sketch and tell stories by drawing.

Robert Redford in Rome, c. 1956. Photo courtesy the artist

Robert Redford in Rome, c. 1957. Photo courtesy the artist

Then I realized: why can’t I combine the two?—which led me to be a director. Ordinary People was my first venture into directing. I didn’t know the technical language of filmmaking, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to do my own storyboard,” because I had to explain to the crew and the technical people what I wanted. I knew what I wanted it to look like, so I would sit down and draw it for the cameraman or the production designer. Once I did that I realized: I’m not losing the artist side of me. I’m pulling it together with the performing side.

Dylan: Do you ever think about returning to painting?

Robert: Yeah, a lot—and a lot lately because I’m getting tired of acting. I’m an impatient person, so it’s hard for me to sit around and do take after take after take. At this point in my life, age 80, it’d give me more satisfaction because I’m not dependent on anybody. It’s just me, just the way it used to be, and so going back to sketching—that’s sort of where my head is right now.

So, I’m thinking of moving in that direction and not acting so much. I’ve got two acting projects in the works: Our Souls at Night, with Jane Fonda, a love story for older people who get a second chance in life, and Old Man with a Gun, a lighter piece with Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek. Once they’re done then I’m going to say, “Okay, that’s goodbye to all that,” and then just focus on directing.

Dylan: That’s big news! It reminds me of a story you’ve told, and I would love to hear it again—the story about you sleeping on the beach outside the Cannes Film Festival.

Robert: Of course. I was 18 or 19, and I was in Europe, living hand to mouth, staying in youth hostels, and hitchhiking from here to there. I was leaving Paris. I was on my way to Florence, Italy, to go to a different art school. It was wintertime and it was really a tough hitchhiking trip, but I finally got out of Switzerland, and as I ascended into France and arrived in Cannes, it suddenly was a little warmer.

I still had no money. I had no place to stay and it was a very wealthy area. They had these piers right along the shoreline, and I decided I would park myself in the sand there. The pier was a shelter and I decided to undo my bag and make my own little bed there with my clothes and my sleeping bag and so forth.

Robert Redford with director Sydney Pollack before the screening of Jeremiah Johnson at the Cannes Film Festival, May 6, 1972. Photo: Jean Jacques Levy, AP

Robert Redford with director Sydney Pollack before the screening of Jeremiah Johnson at the Cannes Film Festival, May 6, 1972. Photo: Jean Jacques Levy, AP

While I was lying there, I could see behind me the Hotel Carlton, which was this really swank hotel in Cannes. I would look up there and see the lights and hear the voices. I’d hear the gaiety and the music and people laughing. I was thinking to myself, “Jesus, what is it like? What must that be like to be in that building, wearing a tuxedo and dancing and having a high old time?”
Sixteen years later, I’m an actor and I’ve made a movie, Jeremiah Johnson, and Sydney Pollack and I are invited to the Cannes Film Festival. So I go and suddenly I’m put up in the same hotel. I’m in the room and waiters are coming in bringing champagne and bringing hors d’oeuvres in their white coats and so forth. I’m putting on my tuxedo, ready to go down for the premiere, and I step out on the balcony to watch the crowds down below, the cameras flashing, and the noise. And then I look beyond that to the piers. I said, “Jesus.” I suddenly remembered myself lying underneath that pier, wondering what it would be like to be in this building that I was now in.

I remember saying to myself, “Hey, guess what? I’m in this building, and you know what? It’s not so good. It’s not anything like what I thought it was. It’s a pain in the ass.”

Clearly, it would be too one-note to say just the whole thing is a pain in the ass. It’s got some pretty attractive parts to it, but when you add it all up, it became a real labor. It became real labor to struggle in the marketplace against the odds, against all the elements that go against you. Let’s put it this way: it isn’t what I thought it would be.

Dylan: What did you think it would be? Can you remember what you thought it what be, versus where you ended up?

Robert: Yeah, very shallow. It was a very shallow, immature thought because I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t been on that side of the equation. I had not been in a luxurious place. I had not been in a place where there was a lot of money, so I just imagined it was a pretty terrific place and that life must be really great. Then when I got there, I realized it wasn’t as great as I thought.

Dylan: I’ve always wondered how you feel about your celebrity status. I remember the time when I was in fourth grade and you came to my school for Grandparents’ Day. That was a real moment for me, where I was like, “What is going on? This is my grandpa. Why is everyone so interested?” Just total confusion.

I remember this one girl came up to me and handed me a note. She was like, “This is a note from my grandmother that she gave to me to give to you to give to your dad to give to your grandfather.” It was like, “What is going on here? Is this like all grandparents? Is there some sort of communication between grandparents that’s going on that I don’t know about?” It’s remained a pretty wild thing to me.

Robert: I’ll bet it did. I remember that Grandparents’ Day and realizing, “Jesus, Dylan and Lena, they don’t know. They’re probably wondering what the hell is going on here, because I’m going to Grandparents’ Day but I’m suddenly not a grandparent. I’m a celebrity.” People would come up to me and they wanted autographs and I’m thinking, “Wow, this feels very uncomfortable.” It was very disturbing.

Dylan: Well, I’ve talked with Lena [Dylan’s sister] and the cousins about how lucky we all feel to have you as our grandfather and as someone in our lives who is so open and honest and willing to give advice and to tell stories. It’s always felt to us that you are first and foremost our grandfather. Maybe that’s not the case for other celebrity families. It’s always felt like there’s the outside world that has its own thing and then there’s our family, which feels really special. I think it’s something that you’ve clearly put a lot of thought and effort into making.

Robert: That’s correct, I did. I put a lot of thought into: “How can I raise a family and not let outside stuff intrude?”

Robert and Dylan Redford, c. 1994. Photo courtesy the Redford family

Robert and Dylan Redford, c. 1994. Photo courtesy the Redford family

Dylan: How did you deal with celebrity personally, aside from concerns about family?

Robert: I had to devise my own way to not have celebrity affect me—to not have it distort my own perspective on things or distort my own personality, or where I would start to take myself too seriously. I had to learn that humility was going to be a major component that I wanted to keep in my life.

I could see it coming when I first started to get recognized. Around the time of Butch Cassidy [1969] I was suddenly catapulted into a higher category of being recognized on the street. I was seeing my name in print, and it really got to me in the beginning. I started to take myself seriously, and I remember thinking, “I’d better be careful here. I’d better be careful not to lose myself with this because now all this attention is being paid to me.”

I created three categories for myself around the idea of success. The first stage is that you become an object. Slowly, you’re not being just you anymore. You’re becoming an object to other people who don’t really know you, and if you’re not careful, you go to the next stage and move from being treated like an object to beginning to see yourself as an object. If you’re not careful there, the third and final category is you will become an object and you’ll completely lose yourself.

I put those three categories up and said, “I’m going to be really careful.” If I started getting too much attention, I’d have to pull back and say, “Hold it. Don’t go further down this road. Just remember, don’t take yourself too seriously. Other people may be taking you seriously, but don’t you take yourself seriously.” That kept me in balance.

Dylan: Let’s talk about Sundance. It’s interesting to me that you were having all this success in Hollywood, in the mainstream, but that you also felt like it was important to really incubate independent filmmakers and, in some ways, to create an alternative route to the mainstream. I’m wondering about that instinct, because that’s not often the way most celebrities have dealt with their position or power: “Well, how can I channel this into helping other people?” Was that a cognizant thing for you? Did you feel like you had this position of power and you wanted to somehow use it for the better good or to help these other filmmakers?

Robert: Yeah. The mainstream did control the marketplace at that time. Its criteria was pretty well set. They would tell stories, but they wanted to feel that those stories were going to be commercial, and as a result, the mainstream began to tell stories that were pretty much all the same. American culture was so much red, white, and blue from the 1940s on, and the studios were following that lead so that things were just very red, white, and blue—meaning commercial. They would make films that they were pretty sure would sell tickets.

That was fine. I was very much a part of that. I was very much a part of the studio system. But I felt that there were other stories to be told that were more in the gray zone, where life was more complicated, so I started Sundance. To be able to do it myself, I would make a deal. I’d say to the studio, “Look, if I make this film, it’s a high-budget film, would you let me make a smaller film that’s more offbeat and at a lower cost?” They’d say, “Yeah, as long as it’s under a million, five. Go ahead.” That led me to make films like The Candidate, Downhill Racer, and Jeremiah Johnson.

While I was doing large studio films, I was also able to make these smaller films that I thought would give me more satisfaction because they were different stories to be told. But it was just me doing it. It needed to be expanded and so I thought, “What about other people like myself?” That’s what led to the idea of Sundance.

Dylan: How did it feel to exist in these sort of in-betweens, not wanting to fully exist within the Hollywood zone but also remain independent? Was that a difficult position to hold?

Robert: It was. There was misunderstanding in the beginning that by starting Sundance and having it be in Utah, not Hollywood or New York, that I was like an insurgent. I was like some guy aiming to take down Hollywood by starting something different and new. It wasn’t that at all. I really just wanted to broaden the landscape. Because I was part of the mainstream. I made some films I’m very proud of in the mainstream, and I liked it, but I thought, “There are other ways to tell stories, so why don’t we just create this category and then add it to the main one?”

At a certain point some of the independent films crossed over into success, and once that happened then the studios said, “We’re missing something here.” They then created their own little sub-studios within their own trademark.

Robert Redford (front row, center) as a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Photo: UC-Boulder Alumni

Robert Redford (front row, center) with fellow members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity at the University of Colorado, c. 1955. Photo: UC-Boulder Alumni Association, Flickr

Dylan: One last topic: how did you come to have such a firm grip on your own story? I mean, throughout your career—as an actor and director and with Sundance—you’ve seemed so confident and sure of your own vision. But, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t always that way. In closing, can you tell me the mirror story, about your meltdown as an art student in Paris?

Robert: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I decided I was going to be an artist and I said, “Okay I’m done with the University of Colorado. I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t belong in a classroom.” I had the encouragement of an art teacher who said, “You should go out and explore and just do your own thing.”

I went to Europe and signed up for an art class in Paris. The teacher was a guy named Henri Goetz, and he said, “Look, I will speak English and French for two weeks, but then after two weeks I’ll only speak French, so it’s up to you to learn enough French so you’ll be able to follow.” I was so impacted by him. He so impressed me that I began to paint in his class. After awhile I wanted to move out of Paris and continue my artwork in Florence.

I did, and I ended up living in this little room—just a room with a little bed and a bassinet and a mirror and a table. I really went into hermit mode and just painted and painted. Now when he came through on his way to Rome, he paid me a visit. I was all excited to show him what I’d been working on, and I did—and he was very disappointed. He said, “I don’t see you in this. I see me. You’re just copying my stuff.” It devastated me, just absolutely devastated me.

He went on his way, and then I was left alone. I sat in front of the mirror and I thought, “What do I really look like? I wonder what I really look like. The only way I’ve ever understood myself is by looking in a mirror, and when I look in a mirror I see me and I say, ‘Okay, I guess that’s who I am.'” I suddenly realized, “No. We look in a mirror and immediately we put on the face we think we should put on. We don’t really know what we look like.” So I decided: to find out what I really look I’m going to sit here in front of this mirror and look at me and just keep looking at me and see what happens.”

James, Robert, and Dylan Redford at the premiere of The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, a documentary directed by James Redford with Dylan as its subject, October 25, 2012. Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for HBO

James, Robert, and Dylan Redford at the premiere of The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, a documentary directed by James Redford with Dylan as its subject, October 25, 2012. Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for HBO

I did and then I started to really realize how ridiculous it was and I started to laugh. When I saw myself laughing, I suddenly realized, “That’s what I look like laughing.” That made me laugh even more, and the more I laughed the less I recognized myself. The more I laughed, the more I thought, “Wait, that’s what I look like when I’m laughing? That’s not at all what I thought.”

Then I really started to laugh at how ridiculous it all was. My laughter turned to tears, and I watched myself in the mirror going from laughter to crying until it became a complete meltdown. That was valuable for me because when I got through it, I realized, “Okay, stuff’s going on. Stop running around Europe trying to be a painter. Get back to America and restructure your life.”

Dylan: Just like we’ve been talking about of how can you figure out how to tell your own stories, how to find your own language that isn’t somebody else’s. It’s really trying to find how you relate to a larger conversation. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?

Robert: Yeah, who are you, really? In other words, you think you know who you are until you put yourself in a situation where you have to look at yourself beyond the point where you did before and you see another person there. Then you say, “Wow,” and then you get scared. It gets frightening.

The 25-film retrospective Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary concludes November 12 in a sold-out Walker Dialogue with Amy Taubin. 

“The Word ‘Sundance’ Means You to Me”: A Cameraperson’s Letter to Robert Redford

A documentary cinematographer for 25 years, Kirsten Johnson has trained her lens of a wide range of figures and in a staggering array of locales, from Edward Snowden (Citizenfour, 2014) to Jacques Derrida (Derrida, 2002), a survivor of the genocide in Sudan (Darfur Now, 2006) to Osama bin Laden’s driver (The Oath, 2010). Johnson’s new film, Cameraperson, weaves […]

Kirsten Johnson in Darfur. Photo: Lynsey Addario

Kirsten Johnson in Darfur. Photo: Lynsey Addario

A documentary cinematographer for 25 years, Kirsten Johnson has trained her lens of a wide range of figures and in a staggering array of locales, from Edward Snowden (Citizenfour, 2014) to Jacques Derrida (Derrida, 2002), a survivor of the genocide in Sudan (Darfur Now, 2006) to Osama bin Laden’s driver (The Oath, 2010). Johnson’s new film, Cameraperson, weaves together these experiences in a tapestry of footage that offers both an autobiographical portrait of the artist and an investigation into how “complex it is to film and be filmed.” As we conclude our Robert Redford retrospective—which celebrates his twin roles as actor/director and, through the Sundance Institute and film festival he founded, as community-builder for filmmakers—we share Johnson’s letter to Redford, sent in March 2016. It’s a fitting homage to a figure who for a half century has left an indelible mark on cinema, on both sides of the camera’s lens.

Dear Mr. Redford,

This weekend we screened Cameraperson as the closing-night film of the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center and MoMA. When I introduced the film, I spoke, as I did when the film premiered at Sundance New Frontiers in January, about how this film is an act of acknowledgement. An acknowledgement of how films coming into being through the acts and contributions of so many people. When Tabitha [Jackson, director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program] texted me last night to let me know that you had asked about seeing the film, I marveled again at the way this film is alive in what it challenges and offers me to do. Now, it has generated the opportunity for me to acknowledge you and what your choices and generosity have meant for my life.

Thank you for wanting to see the film. I am humbled by your interest and also thrilled that you will find in it so much of evidence of the ways in which you are intertwined in my filmmaking life. The film draws upon footage that I have shot as a documentary cameraperson over the last 25 years. One of the first films I shot was with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. I was still in film school in Paris at the time and completely intimidated by him, but desperately hoping to impress him. I tried to chat with him when I could. At one point, he was so frustrated with the experience of being filmed that he threatened to throw the entire crew out of his home. The director, Amy Ziering (who at that time said repeatedly she wasn’t a director [!] and didn’t believe she was capable of being a filmmaker but had been a student of Derrida’s and believed he should be documented), begged that he let us stay. He replied, “Kirsten can stay with the camera if she stops talking.” And so I remained in his home with him and his wife, filming for the next eight hours without saying a word, and had the slow realization that it was possible to express an intellectual and emotional experience with the person I was filming through how I used the camera. I think of that silent day in his home as one of the inciting incidents of my life as a cameraperson. Derrida went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 and it was my first encounter with your world. The experience of attending that screening convinced me that I never wanted to stop engaging with the kind of vitality in conversation about film that I experienced there.

Still from Cameraperson

Liberian women came together to end the civil war in Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Photo courtesy the artist

2002 was the start of my Sundance life. The thick middle of the story includes multiple trips to both sides of the mountain. Along the way Sundance has sent me to Afghanistan, generously engaged me creatively with the finest of mentors, pulled me back from the brink of financial disaster multiple times, and hosted the party at which I bumped into Ira Sachs and we decided to embark (along with his husband Boris Torres) on the inspired plan of co-parenting children together (Viva and Felix age four). My one time really sitting down with you came when I attended the Sundance 2006 Director’s Lab. I had written a film based on my post-9/11 experiencing of falling in love with a Moroccan man who had to flee the US under questionable circumstances. You had us all for dinner and I brought you a small plate from Morocco. After years of working in documentary, all the while filled with the fear and desire to make a “film of my own,” having you sit at the table with all of us was such validation that one could and must keep holding on to the quivering hope at the core of filmmaking.

Among the many journeys Sundance has initiated for me, one was to the Skywalker Ranch for the Sound Design and Composer’s Lab in 2013. There I worked with the incredible sound mixer Pete Horner on the film that I had shot in Afghanistan. It was a film I was trying to salvage after one of the principle protagonists of the film, a teenage Afghan girl, had realized that she no longer felt safe appearing in the film. Cara Mertes, Bruni Burres, Kristin Feeley, John Cardellino, Rahdi Taylor, and the entire DFP [Documentary Film Program] team supported this film endlessly as it changed form (from 2009 onwards) and through a period when I think none of us believed a film would ever emerge. It was the film that became Cameraperson. And in that period when the one film was dying and the other emerging, you at the Institute had the inspired idea to hire Tabitha Jackson. (If she was writing this email, there would have already been a lot more great laughs by now!) When Cameraperson started emerging, I could barely articulate what it might be to anyone. But from the moment I met Tabitha and began describing the process of making the film and what I hoped it might be, she has never stopped looking at me with a sparkle and saying that such are the kinds of films she believes in and wants to support. Her role in the making of Cameraperson and the vision she has for supporting the “Art of Nonfiction” has been a critical to the completion of the film and the way it is being received in the world.

In August of this last year, as we were editing the film, I reached out to Pete Horner because our collaboration at the Lab had been so meaningful. He said that he was booked for the next year. When [Sundance curator] Shari Frilot called us the week after Thanksgiving to tell us New Frontiers had selected Cameraperson, the relief and gratitude I felt was overwhelming. We were on the brink of shutting the edit room because we were out of money and we knew that not getting into Sundance would mean that the chance of completing the film would be postponed at least another six months, if not postponed indefinitely—we were that on the edge. With the confidence that getting into Sundance inspired in us and in the funders, we were able to keep working with joy. We finished the edit and the mix in late December. Pete from Skywalker called December 30 and said he had a sudden opening the first week of January. Despite the fact we had already mixed and still didn’t have enough money to complete the film, I convinced our wonderful producer, Marilyn Ness, that we needed to go to Skywalker to mix again. Which brings me to the moment I had during the extraordinary week of collaborating with Pete and the exceptional editor Nels Bangerter.

Catherine Joy Johnson, the director's mother, in Cameraperson.

Catherine Joy Johnson, the director’s mother, in Cameraperson. 

We were mixing a scene in which my mom is getting blown over by the wind in Wyoming. Pete asked me to leave the room because he was getting so emotionally involved in layering the wind sounds that he wanted to work alone. I went for a walk and looked out at the big rocks and sequoia trees on the property and started thinking about the landscape George Lucas had chosen to set his working world in. Then I started thinking about you and the mountain. I though about all of the actors and directors and filmmakers who love our work, but how very very few of them specifically put their energy into imagining how to build a community and a structure that could support other people who want to live a life of making films, let alone did it and are still doing it. That is what you have done and are still doing every day. And I started thinking about all of the people I know and love who can be traced to you. And the list just kept getting longer and longer, and I thought of all the times, over and over, when Sundance has stepped in again and again when all our resources, both creative and financial, were completely drained, and somehow we felt filled up again and could continue. Over and over, you and the world you have built, have helped me overcome all of the obstacles and continue forward with hope and humility. It was a stormy day and it started to rain. I went back in to watch the scene you will find in Cameraperson of my mom being knocked over by the wind. That scene, which means so much to me, has you in it for me.

In the credits for Cameraperson, you will find a long list of people under the heading of the “Sundance Community and Fellows.” I did not list your name because it felt presumptuous to me because I do not know you personally. Now I regret that you will not see your name in the credits. What I hope that you do understand and feel is how you are in the film and how the word Sundance means you to me. And that I owe to and share with Sundance and you my filmmaking life.

With great honor and appreciation,
Kirsten

“One Big Birthday Present”: Judith Guest on Robert Redford’s Adaptation of Ordinary People

On November 2, 2016, writer Judith Guest introduces the Walker Art Center’s screening of Ordinary People, the Robert Redford–directed film based on her 1976 novel. In 1976, before my novel, Ordinary People, was published, I got a letter from Robert Redford telling me that he’d received my manuscript from his reader in New York City and […]

Ordinary People (1980) Directed by Robert Redford Shown: Timothy Hutton (as Conrad Jarrett), Mary Tyler Moore (as Beth Jarrett)

Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. Photo courtesty Universal Pictures/Photofest

On November 2, 2016, writer Judith Guest introduces the Walker Art Center’s screening of Ordinary People, the Robert Redford–directed film based on her 1976 novel.

In 1976, before my novel, Ordinary People, was published, I got a letter from Robert Redford telling me that he’d received my manuscript from his reader in New York City and wanted to let me know how much he’d enjoyed it. I was thrilled, but it didn’t occur to me that this meant he was interested in making it into a film, until my publisher called to say there had been three movie offers on it. “Two are from big studios, which means they might make it. Or they might just buy it to keep somebody else from making it. And the third offer is from Redford.”

“So, what do you need from me?” I asked. “We want you to tell us who to go with.” I thought for about 2-½ seconds about it, as you can imagine.

From then on, it was all one big birthday present. Redford would send me drafts of the screenplay (written by Alvin Sargent), with a note attached saying, “Judy, feel free to wail.” Once he called to run some names by me: “Tell me how you feel about these guys,” he said. I listened to the names of actors, some whom I loved, and some not so much. “Hey, this sort of feels like playing God,” I complained at one point. “Never mind that,” he said. “Just tell me if you like him or not.” Then I mentioned an actor I liked, and he said, “Nope, he’s got weird eyes.” And I saw how one’s acting job could hang by a thread that small.

He told me this was to be his directing debut. “Needless to say, I want the movie to be good,” he said. “And if it is, it should give your book a lot of shelf life.” Which, of course, it has. And for that I couldn’t be more grateful.

Redford sent his production manager to scout the Twin Cities as a set, but since the Minnesota Film Board had yet to be founded, there wasn’t much support for it, and they decided instead to film in Chicago. But Redford did come to Minneapolis to do some casting. He said that New York kids had too much angst and California kids didn’t have enough, and he wanted to cast the lead, Conrad, from the Midwest. While he was here, we went over the script together. I mentioned one scene that hadn’t worked for me, and he said, “Yeah, I don’t like it either. Don’t worry, it’s gone.” Another scene, where Conrad and his doctor hug during a therapy session, prompted me to say that, as much as I liked the idea of them having that moment together, I thought it would take away from the primary embrace at the end, between Conrad and his father. “No, no, this will work,” he assured me. And then proceeded to act out both scenes for my benefit. “Okay,” I said when he was finished. Who wouldn’t have? I had my own private screening with Redford starring, for heaven’s sake.

At one point I confided to him my many frustrations with the character of Beth, the mother. “I don’t see her as a villain,” I said. “But people seem to hate her. I have a lot of sympathy for her, and yet I wasn’t able to get that across. Some characters are like poems: you never finish them, you just abandon them in despair. “ He told me, “I see how you as the author might feel like that, but for me, and for the purposes of this movie, I think she works just fine.” So I quit worrying about her.

He never did cast Conrad in the Midwest; he used California actor Timothy Hutton in the role, but he did find Scott Doebler, a Twin Cities drama student, to play the role of Conrad’s brother, Buck. And I remember him telling me how much he loved Mary Tyler Moore as Beth, the mother: “You barely have to breathe at her, and she knows exactly what you want.”

Judith Guest and Robert Redford on the set of Ordinary People, Chicago, 1980. Photo courtesy the author

Judith Guest and Robert Redford on the set of Ordinary People, Chicago, 1980. Photo courtesy the author

I got to visit the set in Chicago twice, and I met all 80 people on the crew and found out what each one of them did on the movie. I also made a good friend, Jim Sikking, who played Calvin’s law partner in the film. He and his wife, Florine, are natives of California. We still exchange Christmas cards, and I see them whenever I am in LA. So for me, this experience was as good as it gets.

And the best part of it was the night of the Academy Awards. I should mention that they were postponed for a day, due to the fact that President Reagan was shot. Thus does life pre-empt art. On the following night my neighbors, Doug and his wife Linda, had a party. Doug set up three TVs and we all sat around them, making predictions while he taped the show. The movies Ordinary People was up against for best picture were Elephant Man, Tess, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Raging Bull. I loved them all and didn’t think OP had a prayer of winning. I can still see Redford sitting at one end of the row and Scorsese at the other—two guys who couldn’t appear more different from each other!

It was up for six Academy Awards and won four: best picture, best director, best screen adaptation, and best supporting actor. And every time it won an award, we’d all jump up and down and scream our heads off, and the phone would ring and it would be my dad calling from Detroit, saying, “D’you believe this??!!” After the party was over, and everyone had left, Doug turned to me: “Let’s watch it again!” We didn’t, though. At least, not that night…

Afterward I sent my mother a copy of the letter I had gotten from Redford, and she called to tell me she had copied and mailed it to several of her friends. “But, that’s all right, isn’t it?” she asked. “I mean, the letter belongs to you, right?”

“Well, no,” I said. “Legally a letter belongs to the person who writes it, not the person who receives it.”

My mom thought about this for a minute. “You mean if he found out, he could sue me?” And then her voice got all quivery and excited: “Oh, gosh, I hope he sues me!”

Ordinary People screens November 2 as part of Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary, a 25-film retrospective and dialogue. 

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.

Cinema as Landscape: Amy Taubin on Robert Redford

In conjunction with the Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary (September 30–November 12, 2016), critic Amy Taubin shares her perspective on the actor, director, and Sundance founder’s four-decade career. Taubin shares the stage with Redford during a November 12 Walker Dialogue. Over the past 40-odd years, there has been no more iconic a presence in the […]

Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson 1972 Photo courtesy Warner Bros

Robert Redford (right) in Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

In conjunction with the Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary (September 30–November 12, 2016), critic Amy Taubin shares her perspective on the actor, director, and Sundance founder’s four-decade career. Taubin shares the stage with Redford during a November 12 Walker Dialogue.

Over the past 40-odd years, there has been no more iconic a presence in the landscape of American cinema than Robert Redford. He is a multi-hyphenate: actor, director, producer, and the visionary founder of the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival. The metaphor of cinema as a landscape is particularly apt in relation to Redford, an environmental activist who has fought to conserve the wilderness of the west and who, in many of his films, depicts the land itself as the source of passions and values, action and contemplation—in short, of much that comprises American identity, both personal and collective.

One of the defining images of Redford, the actor, occurs about 50 minutes into George Roy Hill’s 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film that made Redford a star. On the run from the law, Sundance (Redford) and Butch (Paul Newman) climb to the top of rocky ridge. We see a close-up of Sundance as he surveys the terrain below, and from his point of view we see a sweeping moving-camera shot of vast stretches of plains and hills, dappled by the sun. Sundance is on the lookout for their pursuers, but his gaze is also smitten by the beauty of the landscape. No actor other than Redford could have turned, however briefly, a bittersweet comedy about two charming bank robbers into a tragedy of disenfranchisement. Sundance’s tragedy is to be exiled from the land he loves. The movie transformed the largely fictionalized story of outlaw buddies into a foundational myth of the west, not merely because Butch and Sundance were daring and outrageously handsome gunslingers, but because of the truth that Redford brings to Sundance’s impossible desire to be one with the land.

George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969 Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox/Photofest

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox/Photofest

In the early 1960s, Redford bought a few acres in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Compelled by the beauty of this site, he used his movie star wealth to gradually expand his Sundance holdings and his movie star fame to attract private and public sponsorship for the Sundance Institute and slightly later for the Sundance Film Festival. American independent filmmaking did not begin with the founding of the Sundance in 1981, but the infrastructure that Redford created enabled filmmakers to survive outside the corporate structure of Hollywood and brought films that the studios never would have made to an ever increasing audience worldwide. It is not an exaggeration to say that within 35 years, Redford’s vision for Sundance and his dedication to independent filmmaking has recast film culture in America.

In that sense, the two strands of this retrospective, “Sundance Film Festival at the Walker” and “Redford at the Walker” are inseparable. The Sundance festival films, many of them workshopped in the Sundance labs, suggest the enormous range of independent cinema, documentary and fiction. Almost all of them reflect Redford’s commitment to regional filmmaking and to the depiction of cultural, ethnic, racial, and gender diversities that continue to be either ignored or homogenized in Hollywood product.

Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men 1976 Photo courtesy Warner Bros/Photofest

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976). Photo courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest

What is most striking about the series of films in which Redford is either director or star is that so many of them are both specific to their historical moment and stunningly relevant to the way we live now. Watching Alan Pakula’s 1976, All the President’s Men, the adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their investigation of the Watergate scandal and the fall of the Nixon administration, one can’t help thinking that corruption and spying at the highest levels of government is now taken for granted and the buying of elections has been institutionalized by the Supreme Court, while the kind of time consuming, carefully sourced investigative journalism practiced by two rookie reporters (played by Redford and Dustin Hoffman) and their editor at the Washington Post is all but dead in the age of Google algorithms. Watch All the President’s Men and weep.

Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate 1972 Photo courtesy Warner Bros/ Photofest

Robert Redford in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972). Photo courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest

Baldly apropos of this presidential election season is Michael Ritchie’s 1972 The Candidate, which Redford developed and in which he plays a liberal California community organizer who reluctantly allows himself to be drafted into running for the Senate against a conservative incumbent. Promised that he could campaign on his own beliefs and policies, he gradually succumbs to the strategies of his campaign managers. In winning the race, he loses himself. The film concludes with him asking, “What do we do now?” It is the same line that ends the 1969 Downhill Racer, Redford’s earlier collaboration with Ritchie. There he played an ambitious skier from a poor family who sees an Olympic victory as his route to money and fame. Redford’s character is driven, self-involved but not personally corrupt; rather it is the sport itself that is corrupted by its all-consuming focus on winning.

Of the nine feature films Redford has directed, only two are represented in this series. He debuted as a director with the 1980 Ordinary People, a subtle, uncompromising depiction of an emotionally troubled upper-middle-class Midwestern family. It was a surprising choice of subject for an actor largely defined as an action hero, albeit a somewhat conflicted and introspective one. In Ordinary People, Redford focused on what had been wrongly ignored in his own performances, the inner turbulence and damaging repression beneath a graceful, assured presentation of self. The nuclear family, riddled with secrets and lies, is implicated in the hypocrisy and mendacity that is institutionalized in every area of American society.

Robert Redford’s Quiz Show 1994 Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

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

One of those institutions is television. Redford’s most brilliant film as a director is Quiz Show (1994), as cogent an exposé of the deceit that continues to afflict American society today as All the President’s Men. (So too is a film not included in this series, the 1975 espionage thriller Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sydney Pollack, which stars Redford as a low-level intelligence gatherer forced to become a whistleblower when he discovers the existence of a rogue spy network that goes all the way to the top of our national security agencies.) Quiz Show is based on the late 1950s scandal around the game show Twenty-One, which mesmerized viewers who disavowed what was blatantly in front of their eyes—that the contestants were coached in their every gesture and given the answers in advance. Neither the sponsors of Twenty-One nor NBC, the network which aired it, suffered legal consequences. Indeed, the lesson that was learned—the reason that Quiz Show hits home today—is that audiences don’t care how honestly a game is played, they just want to glom onto a winner. There is a direct line from the quiz shows of the 1950s to the “reality” shows that have saturated 21st-century television and have produced a presidential candidate whose falsehoods are accepted as truth by surreal numbers of Americans because it entertains them to do so.

Yes, Redford, the golden boy romantic hero, has turned out to be one of our most hard-hitting political filmmakers. But there are at least two movies in which Redford stars where politics and social relations recede into the background. In Pollack’s 1972 Jeremiah Johnson, Redford plays a 19th-century survivalist, who goes alone into the wildness and learns how to live off the land. The film is something of a visual tone-poem in which the forests and rock cliffs of the west deserve equal billing with Redford’s “mountain man.” The existential struggle between man and nature is even more radically drawn in V.J. Chandor’s 2013 All Is Lost, a film that calls on Redford’s polar-opposite strengths as an actor—his athleticism and his ability to draw the viewer into a character’s inner life without uttering a word. Chandor gave him the role of a lifetime and Redford threw his then-76-year-old mortal body, his actor’s intelligence and experience, and his personal convictions into a character identified in the credits merely as “Our Man.” Alone and adrift in the Indian Ocean after an errant cargo container rams his yacht, he marshals strength, will, ingenuity, and perseverance in the struggle to survive against the forces of nature (albeit polluted by global capitalism) even as his efforts are rendered null by one crisis after another. All Is Lost is a film of exceptional purity—a thrilling distillation of the action movie, of great movie acting in all its virtuosity and mystery, and of the daring of Robert Redford, going into uncharted waters to bring the vision of an inspired novice director to the screen.

J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost 2013 Photo courtesy Film Independent

Robert Redford in J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost (2013). Photo courtesy Film Independent

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for Artforum, Film Comment, and Sight & Sound.

Urgent Cinema: Terrance Franklin and a Failure of Justice

Minnesota-based artist and filmmaker D.A. Bullock’s in-progress film Killing Mookie is a searing documentary essay on the killing of 22-year-old Terrance Franklin by a Minneapolis SWAT team in May of 2013. No charges were brought against the involved officers Michael Meath and Lucas Peterson, who was named in 13 excessive force complaints between 2000 and 2013. The officers, using language that […]

D.A. Bullock. Killing Mookie. 2016.

Terrance Franklin in D.A. Bullock’s Killing Mookie, 2016. Image courtesy the artist

Minnesota-based artist and filmmaker D.A. Bullock’s in-progress film Killing Mookie is a searing documentary essay on the killing of 22-year-old Terrance Franklin by a Minneapolis SWAT team in May of 2013. No charges were brought against the involved officers Michael Meath and Lucas Peterson, who was named in 13 excessive force complaints between 2000 and 2013. The officers, using language that has become commonplace in officer-involved killings, stated that they feared for their lives. Occurring before both the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Franklin’s death received comparably little media scrutiny. In revisiting the incident, Bullock draws attention to the a history of police conduct that precedes the Black Lives Matter movement.

An excerpt from Killing Mookie screened at the Walker Art Center on Thursday September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In conjunction with the program, I connected with Bullock to discuss the film. This is the final interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan FisherKarl Jacob, Dawn MikkelsonKeri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

Killing Mookie addresses the shooting of Terrance Franklin by Minneapolis police in 2013, prior to widespread public engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement. What made you decide to investigate an officer-involved shooting from this period? Do you think Black Lives Matter has changed public awareness and media coverage of policing?

I decided to focus on Terrance Franklin’s case because I thought it would be interesting to look back on some of the police narratives that we have accepted and taken for granted. This case stood out to me because I remember when it happened, I remember the sick feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, and most importantly I remember how the city at large reacted with a collective shrug, an assumption of Terrence’s guilt: “The bad guy got killed by the police.”

I think Black Lives Matter has forever changed the awareness around policing of Black and Brown folks, for that I am eternally grateful to the mostly young people who have put themselves out there on the front line, to demand justice.

Your project draws on a tremendous media archive ranging from newscasts to footage shot on mobile devices. What made you to decide to draw on such a broad range of material?

We live in a world of media tapestry and media collage. Much of our lives are pieced together as timelines and tweets and bursts of small storytelling. I thought it was appropriate to use that approach in piecing together Terrance’s life and the events of that day. Also, we know we cannot necessarily trust the entire mainstream media narrative about this case and others, because that narrative was sourced from one single entity, the police. It is the classic case of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie termed “the danger of the single story.”

What do you feel is absent from daily news coverage of policing?

We are delivered stories of events without context, and with a certain degree of bias, whether that’s conscious or subconscious. The traditional media doesn’t analyze police policy with a critical eye. They don’t supply the depth of questioning. In Terrance Franklin’s case, they didn’t ask if Terrance had gun residue on his hands; they relied on the police narrative of DNA. They didn’t ask about why the grand jury was convened by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. They didn’t examine the police narrative and question what did not add up. Lastly, they wait for cases like this to tell the story in false equivalencies. They do not take the time and effort to tell the story of the systemic failure that creates these cases. We are currently living under a dysfunctional police and criminal justice system.

The film is shot in black and white and includes voiceover. What made you gravitate towards overt directorial intervention, instead of vérité technique, for the project?

I own my bias and my imagination. I’m very up front about it. I feel like part of my artist responsibility is to advocate and elevate and touch and inspire. I think the vérité technique is more manipulative in that it lulls us into believing that film is not a contrived fabricated presentation. It is a creation, even documentary. I’m not manipulating facts, but I am leading the viewer down a deliberate path. Every good documentary does that. I embrace that idea. I admire the work of documentary storytellers, like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, who imagine with a distinct point of view. The black and white here is about contrast; it’s about the conceit that the story we are given is “just the facts”—very black and white. In fact the story we received was wrought with nuance and manipulation and bias. The system likes to pretend it’s blind to all that, so I wanted to present my education on this case in very black-and-white, visual terms. The media in the film taken from television reports and social media at the time of the case remains in color, and the archive is in color. I’m making the case in black and white.

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