Stephen Taylor in Parable
First just a few words on personal cinema stuff. Parable, excluded from all festivals aside from little Split, Croatia, screened finally at a US festival, the “Maverick” festival in San Jose, California. Steve Taylor, who played lead, repped the film there, and says he had a great time.
20 years ago at the first Maverick festival I was their point-man, the focus of their idea of “independent/maverick.” Since then they’ve honored Paul Bartel, Russ Meyer, Werner Herzog, and John Waters, Luis Valdez, Kevin Spacey, Elmer Bernstein, Jackie Chan, Walter Murch, John Schlesinger, and Barry Sonnenfeld, Gabriel Byrne, Rod Steiger, Kevin Pollak, Louis Gossett Jr. and Diablo Cody. And many others too. The range of choices I guess puts me in good company, though it makes me wonder just what the criteria for being a “maverick” is. Certainly the others have done a lot better by the film business fiscally than I ever did!
Parable was shot in 2007 and is an unpleasant non-audience pleasing anti-feel-good film, with great performances, a weird structure, and a bad-vibed view of, as its lead in title card says, The Time of Bush. I didn’t think a film about that era should make anyone feel good. I sent it to a mess of appropriate American festivals (and foreign ones) and got no takers, though I suspect in some meaningless future it will get cited as somethingorother about the era. I’ll be dead. For a review of the film by Dennis Grunes, see this.
Marjorie Mikasen, painting in Swimming in Nebraska
Made in the same period, Swimming in Nebraska, on which this very day I am doing the final final touches (little mix-fix, stray credits, etc.) has been invited to the Jeonju festival here in Korea where it will screen on May 3 and 6th. The festival – a very good one I’ve now attended 4 times, which shows a wide range of mostly not-commercial work from around the world – will also be doing a retrospective of Pedro Costa’s work and will have James Benning with I think his newest film and something he did for their Digital Cinema project. I’ll be curious to see the response to Swimming, a film which I cannot really describe – a kind of essay/meditation on the mid-west, creative work, artistry, life, the cosmos, and I’ll be damned, I don’t really know. Whatever I started with and intended to do shifted in process and thankfully became something else. Umpteen hundreds of hours of unpaid work, for which there is zero probability of a fiscal pay-off in terms of a sale. Not these days. Which again prompts thoughts about a cinema for no one.
Swimming in Nebraska, final movement
Perhaps it is exhaustion from the work on Swimming (and other things at the same time), or perhaps it is the wages of age, or perhaps the distractions of my modest bit of teaching, or….
Or perhaps it is the natural drying up of creative energies. Or perhaps it is simply a little hiatus of the moment. Of all this I am a bit unsure. What is sure is that the last year or so has seen my mind pondering the matter of doing creative work, of doing it in a hostile environment which celebrates celebrity or mammon and disdains the quiet and/or thoughtful or creatively adventurous, of all the work and the absent “pay.” Not merely fiscal pay, but psychological. For myself I don’t need a pat on the head from a festival or a critic, nor does a kick in the balls bother me. I do these things out of a compulsion, some inner need to express things, to make sense of the world. The only approval or critique I really require is my own. The approval or disdain of others really has little meaning, though naturally it is “nice” if someone likes what I do (if it is sincere, which sometimes one feels it is not), and “nicer” if I can see they got something I was out to do, and maybe even “nicer” if they can see things in my work that I didn’t see but can see after it’s pointed out.
18 months ago, under a “buy by” deadline, thanks to Yonsei, I got a nice Sony XDcamEX1, a video camera of very high quality, able to make imagery more or less the equal of 35mm, and for almost nothing (endlessly reusable flash chips cost a whole $50 each – bye bye to that 30-50$K Kodak and lab bill). The camera is small compared to the CP GSMO 16mm camera I once had. I also got a very nice Sachtler carbon-fiber tripod and head. And for 18 months, aside from loaning it out a few times to my friend Cheol Mean, to shoot a feature (Moscow by title), it has rested forlorn and gathering dust in the corner. I’ve taken it out a handful of times to try to figure it out, and did a few shots with it, but otherwise it’s been unused, growing “obsolete” (RedCam is already the hotter/cheaper item of others’ desires). Every time I think to go shoot, I think of the tripod weight (the tripod is light, the head is not), the camera which compared to the little SONY DV or HDR cameras I have, seems big and heavy, and that is enough to make me say “ah, what the fuck” and not do it. Perhaps it is Seoul, which I find visually cluttered and visually uninspiring. Perhaps it is being away from what some critics and others say is my “subject” – America (a view with which I partly agree). Whatever the reasons are, the camera and tripod sit there as a kind of affront, asking me each day why I don’t go use it, or conversely asking me if I really want to continue making films.
For me it seems a natural thing that energy depletes, or that something like the creative process has its own dynamic, and when all is said and done entropy gets the last word. I have been around long enough to have seen in friends, acquaintances and others, the process at work: the young brilliant one-shot flashes (lots on the festival circuit), the stalwart souls who plod on and hit their stride a decade or two or three later, and those who never do. I have watched the psychological twists and turns these impose – the cocky arrogant sureness of some (who usually burn out early), the modest demeanor of the steadfast, the tentative inward turns of those who feel they’ve shot their wad or never received their due accolades. Or those whose work slowly curdles on itself and becomes a self-parody, of interest to an ever diminishing few (Godard, Greenaway, Jarmusch).
And I have watched the way in which critics behave – from their favorites seemingly always anticipating a masterpiece, deluded when it doesn’t come, quickly writing off those who have in their view stumbled, or those who’ve taken a turn which they don’t appreciate or approve. I’ve seen this with myself, where quite long ago, in 1978, on the strength of but 3 films (Angel City, Last Chants for a Slow Dance and Chameleon), some had me headed to Hollywood, or picked up by Hollywood (though if they’d understood what the films say they never would have had such thoughts). Instead I went and made one of my most experimental films, Stagefright, and then did a sequence of very quiet and modest films with my friends – Slow Moves, Bell Diamond, Rembrandt Laughing. Clearly I was no longer Hollywood stuff in their minds (nor in mine – I never wished to go there, though briefly in 1978 I’d flirted with the idea, though Chameleon provides an acidic glimpse of my choice). Nor was I much of anything outside an early exponent of DIY “American Independent” film.
And then came All the Vermeers in New York, and once again I was in the running – applauded by the critics, anointed by the IFP, and assured that now indeed the magic wand of Hollywood would descend and… And it did not, nor did I want it or seek it. Vermeers was hardly the biz’s idea of an American film. The Bed You Sleep In and Frameup were my answer to thoughts about America, and I packed and left for 10 years in Europe without ever returning to the US during that time – 1992 to 2002. After a 35mm film in Italy, Uno a te, and an aborted try at another in Vienna (with some “alternative” crooks and a completely corrupt Wiener FilmsFonds) my view of the film business on both sides of the Atlantic was utterly soured. I started to take up painting and pastels. When DV came along in 1996 I seized it as a way to escape the ugly money side of the film world, and in the same moment was more or less discarded by the film business – including most the critics, including those who’d liked much of my celluloid work. For a while it was because somehow digital video was thought a lesser medium, and using it signaled some kind of retreat or defeat, also by festivals – who invited the DV work, but for a video “side-bar” and I declined saying what you made something on wasn’t the point, it was what you made. 5 years later, once it had caught on, the commercialization of everything had installed itself, and anything not narrative, more or less conventional and lacking some commercial hook, was automatically off all but the most esoteric of radars. My own work by and large misses these criteria, though some relatively recent ones – Homecoming, Over Here, and La Lunga Ombra are accessible narrative films, if not very conventional or upbeat. They are also discreetly but pointedly political, as well as, in my view, some of the best films I’ve done. But seen by almost no one. In America the political aspects I think were in part responsible for the “no thanks” letters during the Bush era.
Perhaps it is fashion, or a bias against those of older age – the “never trust anyone over 30” mantra of the 60’s returned to haunt the geezers of today. Or just the turning of the wheel. Whatever the case, where a few years ago I felt that some modestly important/useful festival would show whatever I decided was good enough to pass along, apparently it’s no longer the case. Nor is it the case that those doing the choosing seem ever to have heard of me. The times they are a’changin’, but not exactly in the same old way ! [Mr Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, is in Seoul tonite, looking like a weird beat up old man and with a disintegrated voice, though some say he’s in good form. At $100 I won’t be going.]
Such thoughts meander in my mind, and I think sometimes it’s time to pack it in. Though not for lack of many thoughts of a creative kind – I drown in those. Rather it is summoning the will and energy to go make them happen on my own dime, not getting paid. That seems to be the stumbling block in my head, though as ever in my life, the idea of spending an hour chasing the money to do it draws a blank. Yesterday I was in an art-supply store, looking a pencils and pastels, paper and brushes, and thinking something like, oh hell, maybe its time to resume that and just forget about the EXcam.
But then today I took out the Sachtler to see what I’d need to do to attach some kind of golf-cart wheels to it, and if I could attach a solid little ball head instead of the big heavy one on it, all so I wouldn’t be so put off by the weight. And I did the yoga and 90 push-ups this morning. I guess I’m probably not done yet….
[For anyone interested in obtaining DVDs of the films mentioned here, or others, see www.jonjost.altervista.org.]
Note: my friend Nathaniel Dorsky will be having screenings of his recent films at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC on Monday, April 12th, 2010, 7 pm. And then he’ll have screenings at the Centre Pompidou Paris, May 5th, 7 pm, Cinema 2, and May 12, same time and cinema.
“The films of Nathaniel Dorsky blend a beauteous celebration of the sensual world with a deep sense of introspection and solitude. They are occasions for reflection and meditation, on light, landscape, time, and the motions of consciousness. Dorsky’s films reveal the mystery behind everyday existence, providing intimations of eternity” (Steve Polta, San Francisco Cinematheque). Dorsky writes of Sarabande, “Dark and stately is the warm, graceful tenderness of the Sarabande.” And of Winter: “San Francisco’s winter is a season unto itself. Fleeting, rain-soaked, verdant, a brief period of shadows and renewal.” Describing his two most recent films, Compline and Aubade, he writes, “Compline is a night devotion or prayer, the last of the canonical hours, the final act in a cycle. This film is also the last film I will be able to shoot on Kodachrome, a film stock I have shot since I was ten years old. It is a loving duet with and a fond farewell to this noble emulsion. An aubade is a poem or morning song evoking the first rays of the sun at daybreak. Often, it includes the atmosphere of lovers parting. This film is my first venture into shooting in color negative after having spent a lifetime shooting Kodachrome. In some sense, it is a new beginning for me.