The past week, up against a vacation-departure deadline, I rushed to finalize (almost) Swimming in Nebraska, and set up for myself a small screening in the little cinema hall at the university, inviting a handful of students and acquaintances to take a look so I might get a little feedback. I needed to see it big and with a passable speaker system to check if there were any flaws not visible on the computer, and hear if the mix worked on the kind of systems with which it would most likely be seen. There were, of course, as I always anticipate, little flaws both visually and in the mix, though I doubt most of the viewers noticed them, but it does mean on getting back I need to solve a few technical things which I don’t really understand – little scarcely visible electronic lines where two images meet – and make some modest adjustments in the mix and the timing of a few voice-over items – maybe a few day’s work. But, overall it was clean, as it was intended, and in my view also “works” – to say I think it draws the viewers where I want them to go, however oblique and perhaps confusing it seems for them along the way. It is, I accept, a rather strange film, more or less demanding that most let go of their expectations and just let it happen. The little feedback I got seemed to confirm this, though it wasn’t a fair read as the film requires rather good English comprehension and some of the audience scarcely speaks English well, so that aspect was lost to them. Of those who could deal with the language part, it seemed to work. But it wasn’t really a good enough audience for me to make a judgment on, which will have to wait until I can get 100 people in a room, fluent in English, and watch the reactions.
Swimming was somewhat typical for me – an elaborate home-movie done with friends, with, in this case very unclear thoughts, no narrative, and only the vaguest of notions of what it might be about while I was doing the shooting – back in 2007 in Lincoln. That notion was to make an indirect critique of the people who sneeringly inquire what one is doing in Nebraska, a place where “there’s nothing” – flat boring landscape with flat boring people. People who normally have never been there, or might have glanced at it from 35,000 ft or seen it whiz by on the gray strip of Interstate 80 where more or less everything looks the same as they head to the Rockies or further west. People who are too hip and urban and urbane to see anything if they are there; people who think in clichés but imagine themselves too smart to be bothered by the Nebraska’s or Kansas’ of this world – people who live in New York or Los Angeles or Paris or London or Berlin and think those bland places of the hinterland are “provincial.” People who in my view are the most provincial of all, unable to see beyond the horizons of whatever cultural vortex in which they live. Swimming was meant to be my retort.
Whether that’s what came out, I can’t say, but I don’t really think so. Rather, I fumbled along, trying to make some sense out of the somewhat simple sequences I’d shot over the time in Lincoln – of Marjorie Mikasen painting, her husband Mark Griep, a teacher of organic chemistry at UNL, doing a variant of one of his teaching ploys involving Elvis, and in another explaining the basics of chemical reactions, and Bill Wehrbein, a physics teacher at another university in Lincoln teaching very rudimentary things to a class full of kids, and Bill again singing in his choir, and on his bicycle, and last but not least, some long tracking shots of the fabled flat nothing of Nebraska. It took three years of working with this material, editing, doing some rather complex (at least for me) video graphics to dig something deeper out of it, and then slowly, intuitively finding an order and an orchestration of it.
In the process it shifted from being my would-be critique of the cultural provincialism of NY/LA etc. and seems to have turned into a hymn to a few fragments of Nebraska asked to stand-in for the universe, the whole ball of wax. I suspect the people in the choir will end up liking it, reading it as an odd expression of their Christianity, which is certainly a reading I would be open to. Marjorie I hope finds it a respectful appreciation of her work, but also a bit of an embodiment of her sensibility about art and its function. Mark I imagine and hope will be pleasantly amused at the manic alterations of his modest disquisitions on chemistry, making this “dry” topic, like Nebraska itself, become animatedly alive. But for myself it seems to have become a paean to pure being, the richness of existence itself. Even in supposedly dull boring Nebraska – which of course I find neither dull nor boring myself, but rather a place of beauty and rich with interesting vital people, of whom I met only a few.
Whether the means by which I did this works similarly to PARABLE, and makes this another work for (n)one, we’ll have to wait and see.
Which brings on ruminations of just what is the point of making these works? In this case one which took more hours (many hundreds, or probably a thousand), naturally unpaid, of much expert but tedious technical work (which is also thankfully creatively explorative – the kind of work that you must do yourself in order to find how to genuinely use the media), which is likely to be seen by very very few people, most of whom are likely to be puzzled and wonder why one did this, and a dozen of whom, over some years, who might find it wonderful. With me the external psychological rewards are more or less meaningless – that someone likes, or however they express it, the work is of course “nice” and I am thankful they do, but deep inside I don’t need this. Or that others actively dislike or find it bad is similarly meaningless, and it doesn’t really bother me at all if some think it bad/stupid/artless or whatever epithets they use. My view is whatever you bring to the table will determine what you find and I have no means or interest in controlling that. You like it, you like it; you don’t, you don’t. Given that I put enormous work into these things, don’t get paid (except tangentially – my present “job” I guess is based on my record), and don’t really get any high or low from others’ views on it, I find myself thinking it is just a bad hard-to-break habit. I make films because I don’t know what else to do, (which isn’t to say I don’t know how to do other things – I know how to do lots of other things) and those I make, I seem to make just for myself , which increasingly makes them less and less palatable to others. Looking at the wider world, drowning in bombastic media, while far more elementary things go untended, I wonder what validity there is in making these films for no one, films which might find a screening or five in festivals where mindless viewers skitter from one film to the next, having no time to absorb or internalize one before rushing to the next. And then, after that, perhaps a handful of in-person screenings for a pittance, and some DVD sales – while people are starving in Ethiopia or even in America, or need elementary things like clean water. It would seem even at this late point, there are better things for me to do.
And then I see a film by Nathaniel Dorsky or Leighton Pierce, which are likely to be seen by only a few, and I am glad they exist, and their work exists. I doubt they feel a similar kinship, but I do, each of us off in separate realms where the private wrestles with the social.