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Palermo, Oratorio del Rosario in Santa Cita

Exiting from the clatter of the fetid streets of la cala in the center of Palermo, and entering a side-door to Chiesa di Santa Cita, one climbs a set of stairs and an open blacony welcomes with several young women chattering away, one of whom asks to see your pass for the Palermo Baroque church tour.   She glances, nods, and resumes her conversation.  A notice on the wall says no photography.   We enter into a flood of light, the sun bouncing off the white stucco walls and the dazzle of a wedding cake decor, so dense as to make the eye and mind whirl.  There is no one there.  Sedately, to the far end, a dark Carlo Maratta Virgin of the Rosary attempts and fails to distract.  You are in the Oratorio del Rosario of the Chiesa Santa Cita, caught in the delirium of Giacomo Serpotta’s rococo world, where a swirl of sculpture and ornament overwhelms the senses.   It is, in some ways, all too much – an assault so forceful that it seems to defeat its own purposes.  How is one to look at all this when it seems every surface is swarming with a delicate white meringue of whipped egg whites, all expertly formed into the most delicate of portraiture, as well as the customary billow of clouds and cloth, and an avalanche of putti?  The immediate response is almost to pass out, to flee from this overload on one’s senses, and perhaps, taste.

And yet, beneath this riot of plaster excess, there are myriad quiet corners, exquisitely detailed little stage-sets, telling, as usual in Italy, the same story to which Italian art was shackled for almost two thousand years.  Here it is told with a lightness of touch that amazes in its simple delicacy, especially when framed by the tumult of putti and angels which adorn this place of putative prayer.

Recently restored, this chapel is the work of Giacomo Serpotta (10 March 1652 – 27 February 1732), who specialized in stucco – a kind of plaster which he made more sophisticated by mixing in marble dust which gives it a more brilliant and hard surface.  Stucco must be worked quickly, while still wet.  Once set it may be carved, more easily in the mixture which Sepotta used.   A native of Palermo, the city and other places in Sicily are graced with his work.  Evidently he never left Sicily, and so is little known elsewhere.  I had never heard of him before despite a fairly reasonable acquaintance with Italian art.

In the same church, in a chapel adjacent to the center, reconstructed since major damage caused by bombing in World War II, is another dizzying chapel, this one with mixed marble in-lay.  As with the Rosario the initial sense is that of being overwhelmed, but if one stays, and looks with care, it is full of amazing and lovingly done details which seem literally to sing.

Bedda Sicilia !


Returning back from six weeks travel crammed with too much to ponder, a cloud of personal anxiety for Marcella who is still in Italy with medical problems which make me feel I should  be there with her,  the gray envelope of aloneness here in Seoul jangled only by the pressing matter of getting ready for academic chores, I found myself looking through computer files for something else, and bumped into this – a letter to both Jim Benning and Leighton Pierce, two filmmakers I respect immensely and like to think of as friends:

I hope you won’t mind me bunching this up, but since it’s about something by each of you, and kind of comparative, and as I am dead tired from finishing up (I hope to hell – the Jeonju fest runs tapes through a studio that is merciless, and I’d sent 3 so far, and each one has flaws I didn’t see – dropped pixels, shifted image, little buzz line at bottom of one passage – and I was up to 11 last nite and up at 5am working to 1:30pm before I took off for class and must make new tape tonite, poor me).

Anyway today I looked at a film of each of you – #1, and Ruhr.  It would be hard to find two more wildly different films (unless I opted for totally badly crafted ones) and yet somehow they both did similar things, though coming from completely different angles.

I’ve seen #1 maybe 4 or 5 times before, but hadn’t seen it for quite a while.  Like almost all your work, Leighton, it rewards re-looking again and again.  #1 is so rich, a first look is almost too much to take in, one gets lost in the dust, the forms shifting so rapidly and organically, a wild painterliness almost overwhelming in its seeming pace, the sounds shifting, hinting, guiding.  But with each repeated look the rush of images takes on more and more orderliness, like peeling back the layers of some gorgeous plant, each layer leading to another equally beautiful and sensuous, yet still withholding its secret.   Today I felt I saw so much more than the last time, though it is clear this poem will remain ever elusive.  And enticing.  I am sure I could watch and hear it 100 times – which I think I might have done with some of your films – well that’s a bit rhetorical of course.  How about 30 or 40 times?  Anyway #1 is stunning, in quite a literal sense.

Then I saw Ruhr, on a sizable screen, with my good projector.  Even with the compression it was quite clear and detailed, though I am sure off original it is much more so.  The compression mostly induced some motion artifacts, little jerkiness – annoying, but one is able to read through it.

For a few decades, Jim, I’ve thought your work was sadly compromised by shooting in 16mm, and I fantasized your being able to do it in 35mm, though I understood only too well the brutal fiscal logic that didn’t let you do that (and why I pestered you for a decade and more about DV).  So seeing the HD, the wide-screen format, the far better sound was all a distinct pleasure.  And I was very very impressed with Ruhr, which as radical as it is I suppose for most people, I feel really works.  Though the viewer must give it an awful lot, which I know most (95% or more? of even supposedly adventurous festival goers?) aren’t game to give.   But if you do then you really look and see and listen, it is very rewarding, guiding one to be attentive to the smallest of things, and in a way out of what most would think as almost “nothing” you offer a lesson in dramatic construction.  The little leaf in the tunnel, inconsequential and in most circumstances unnoticeable, makes an ironic little dance; the dance of steel pipes in the making (reminded me a little of the lumber mill sequences in The Bed You Sleep In), forcing one to look and look (and listen and listen), all the while shifting one’s sense of time steadily to another state, while tuning up the eyes and ears.  The forest sequence was gorgeous, the composition really exquisite with the two heavier trunks constraining what almost seemed a spatially false space of light between them; the dark mass to the right pulsating – I found myself thinking of Caspar David Friedrick, and perhaps a touch of Gerhardt Richter (some things of his), and some of the denser images of Pollock, especially late painting.  The jets taking off, the long pause and then the rustle of the branches, autumn leaves falling – this almost “nothing” was ripe with space to think and ponder.  Its repetition was again a lesson in drama – the dramatic act, the long pause, the rustled response, the senses being tuned to what is in the image and the sound.  The mosque sequence seemed a bit strange, though being familiar with Germany, I knew it was not so strange, though I find this religious genuflecting dubious, sad, and a bit fearful – whether of Muslims or our home-grown erstwhile Christians.  The Serra cleaning was the one place where I itched to see a not-Benning turn:  as I watched and it came to a close I promptly thought that it would have been gorgeous (and truthful) to have the guy go off screen with his stuff, and then shot unchanged do a very very slow dissolve to the cleaned work, a large steel monolith in the middle of the screen.  Kind of thing I would have done.  The street scene – stolid, drab, echt deutsch – seemed an anti-climax, though it too took on its own burgerlich life, and off-screen the sound hinted at the wider world, the industrial sounds hovering just a step away (again, was reminded of Bed where the sound of the pulp mill was ever present on the track).

And then the coke tower sequence, where you lay down the gauntlet, and I suppose most would decline the offer.  I looked carefully the whole time, while it was brighter my eyes at a later point saturated with the contrast, popped back and forth, almost hallucinogenic, while the ears tuned to the sounds, seeming almost Penderecki or some Alvo Part, the song of the industrial apparatus, trying to synchronize the repeated noises that seemed to presage the sudden burst of steams, the light drowned by the industrial clouds, the sly rhythm again building the sense of drama.  The off-screen thump, the sequence of up/down siren(?) sounds announcing yet another deluge.  The light slowly dropping, and the coke tower coiled with black shadow, morphing into the WTC towers – such is what an hour will give you to fill in the screen with your own thoughts.

Great film, James.

What both films do, in completely differing tacks, is move the viewer to SEE and to HEAR.  #1, a slightly long poem, plunges the emotions, whips them into a frenzied sensuousness, and leaves you – like making love, satiated and wanting more.  Ruhr, a more massive work than its 2 hours suggest, takes another route, and likewise tunes the eyes and ears, but leaves a vast canvas for the viewer to project their own thoughts onto the process.  I felt Ruhr to have an ominous tone, a weightiness related perhaps to Anselm Kiefer.

Off the top of my head, those are my thoughts of the moment.  I’ll be chewing on them a bit and probably writing more or more clearly on cinemaelectronica in the next days – if I can get damned Swimming fixed and out of my hands.

Back in Seoul following my travels, I flicked on the computers which had frozen along with everything in my living box in my winter absence.  One put out a signal about DMI that sent me scrambling to Google to solve.  Five days later it’s back up.  And the others are under the harness, taking care of chores (mistakes discovered in screenings in Rotterdam and Jerusalem.)  Shortly it will be on to new work – scavenging the several hundred tapes to both get them on Hard Disks before my tape-running machines give up the ghost, and at the same time to look at the material gathered since 1996, and find whatever films are hiding in there.  I suspect there’s 3-5 features and lots more shorts waiting to be discovered and organized.  And along with that beginning to think about and take a few tangible steps towards shooting a film, narrative, in HD, in the summer, or perhaps next winter.

Perhaps it is getting on in age, the fabled mid-life crisis arriving rather late  (67 is not mid-life unless you  are Methusala), or perhaps it is a look at the changed world around me, but as I glance at the racks of tapes, or begin to write people about new film, I find I am less than enthused, and instead silently ask myself, “what’s the point?”

Certainly in my case it’s not the old stand-by, “to make a living,” as it is 100% certain that whichever of these – odd films culled from the backlog of footage, or a quasi-acceptable narrative shot in HD – they are not in the current world going to make any money, plain and simple.  They will cost a little or in the case of the narrative film, a little pile, of my own limited money with old age and its problems, more or less upon me, unprotected by any insurance for health, life, etc.  They’ll also cost lots of time and energy.   So no, it ain’t for money, which my work has never brought me, except belatedly here near end-game, tangentially, via a teaching job which I guess I “earned”  the right to have with 4+ decades of film/video-making.   Nor is it for the cultural pats-on-the-head of festivals showing your work, or retrospectives here and there, or an article written about one’s work.  I know some people like, appreciate, or even need such things, for their sense of self-respect or “ego.”  But being honest, such things really don’t mean much to me, perhaps because I am self-confident enough (or arrogant, depending how you look at it) that I really don’t need external approval: I know very well that I am very good at what I do, and given I am the one most acquainted with the actual processes and the penury involved, I know it better than anyone else could.   In fact often such sentiments are expressed in ways that are actually irritating for me.  So, nope, it’s not the back pats and gushing “loved it” that prompts me.  And when I watch the list of credits roll by in most films, and think someone just directed, or someone just did camera, and someone else edited, well….

Being honest with myself I wonder is it exhaustion, just a tiredness in the face of what this work is, and I think in some part it is.  After nearly 50 years (in 2013) it would be hard to say making a film is exciting or a thrill, as I read others imagine it must be.  It’s a perverse kind of non-paying job, or a bad habit, or, probably a compulsion.  I don’t know how to do nothing, to relax; instead I am a non-stop workaholic, doing one thing or another all day long.   And I know – from my own experience – that some others are very much the same.

On another level, there is a kind of self-pleasure – doing something that pleases one’s self.  When I find in working something new, something I did not know or did not know I knew, there is a flash of cognition, and this triggers a mode of happiness.  That is the thing which, when others perceive it, and are able to articulate it, I am able to feel a genuine sense of connection, of  “communion.”   It is perhaps the mix of this kind of thing, along with the communion I feel with the work itself that keeps things going.  For example I saw this on Mubi, regarding James’ film, and I felt sure that when he saw this he felt a flush of something that I guess we could say verges on the  “spiritual.”

Matt Nelson

on Tue 02 Mar at 06:08 PM

As someone coming to Ruhr with almost no background in cinema or visual literacy, as a reader and writer, I have to say that Ruhr affected me like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I learned much about the world, about myself, through it⎯about how the translation of energy from one form into another forms rhythms which themselves are only interesting in their breaks because the breaks suggest larger, more mysterious rhythms at work, rhythms at higher levels of attention.

So the nature of my own attention seems different to me now because the film helped me attend to those rhythms. The question of art’s fidelity to reality is an old one, and quite misplaced, I think. As Mr. Benning points out, the shots were composed in a frame. And they are still in a way no human eye ever could be, which allowed me the opportunity to experience something that I never would have, even if I had been in those particular places at those particular times. I wouldn’t question any alterations made by the maker of the film than I would trouble with a composer organizing the notes into a score. The manipulation of the matter reality through a human consciousness is one way to understand art, and quite precisely personal, it seems to me.

And Ruhr changed my understanding of what might be an objective reality or a truth. That also seems quite personal to me—a translation one person’s personal into another’s—and I’m glad to my bones to have gotten the experience. So, should Mr Benning happen to read this: thank you.

Jim Benning

As it happens, while “known” in the rarified avant garde experimental film world when I met him back in 1977 or 78, I think at the Edinburgh Festival, James has mainly been in the cultural arts-world background, working away with a consistency similar to my own:  a workaholic.  But he had to juggle his pay-day job, teaching (for some time now at Cal Arts, since 1987; before that in NYC scrambling on grants and visiting artist gigs), from which I suspect he extracted most or much of the money to pay for doing his films.  His work required a lot of travel over the years, really a lot, and I think we can guess he spent the last 3 decades on a real work pattern – all for marginal money, and the usual festival/archive/museum screenings deal.  And for much of it having to cover the costs from his own pocket.   In the last years he’s been rewarded (!) with some retrospectives, and long over-due acknowledgment of the cumulative weight of his ouvre.  With an eye to the future, the Austrian Filmmuseum in Wien is beginning to make archival prints and K2 digital copies of all his films.  (Need I say there weren’t any US offers to do the same.)  And with his newer HD digital works I feel he’s taken a leap in his work, consolidating all he’s learned and applying it with tools that genuinely match his artistic sensibilities.   I confess a real pleasure in seeing this all unfold, however belated it seems to me to be.

With his new, appropriate for his work and far less expensive HD tools, I hope he can maintain the energies to carry on at the standard he set in Ruhr, and in the related Pig Iron 30 minute film which I saw in Jeonju last spring.

RuhrPig IronCasting a Glance (Spiral Jetty)13 LakesRuhrTen SkiesJames at work, Ruhr

Over the decades I’ve had the pleasure to share a small bit of time, usually over a beer, with Jim, and to see if not all his films, most of them.   He’s had kind words about my own efforts, which I appreciate.  Perhaps in a handful of years his work will be more readily available to share – on BluRay or whatever comes next that way.  Meantime if you’d like to take a stab at Ruhr, I think you can download it here.

Or for a bit of reading, you can try this or this.  But the best would be try to see some of his films if you can.

10 Skies

[In a week or two I’ll continue with this rumination, with some thoughts on Leighton Pierce.]

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Just a little note, for those interested.   Newest film was invited to Rotterdam festival, where both Marcella and I will be to see friends, films, and introduce and do Q and A with film. Imagens (Images of a lost city) is a portrait of a disappearing Lisbon, which was recorded when I lived there, 1996-98. It was mostly shot in the area around the Alfama, Castelo de São Jorge, and Graça, though there are other places glimpsed. These are old neighborhoods in the center of the city, a hint of what once was Lisboa.

I first saw the city in 1964, while traveling on an Italian freighter, as one of 12 passengers, enroute to Tampico, Mexico.  Beginning in Genoa, other stops included Livorno, Marseille, Cadiz, then Lisboa and on across the Atlantic where we could have stopped in Habana but the United States had imposed its embargo, so we went on to La Guaira, a port for Caracas, and then to Vera Cruz and finally Tampico. It took a month, and cost all of $150, meals included. It was an Italian ship so the food was pretty good since one ate with the captain.  It was a fantastic adventure, too with many stories for another day.  Portugal at that time was still a very isolated little piece of Europe, under the right-wing dictator, Salazar, and distant from almost everywhere owing its location on the edge of the Iberian peninsula, the bad roads, poverty, and political climate. Then there were almost no cars, and little children trailed me as I went into the Alfama, the rare tourist, with my Pentax in hand.  It was at that time an extraordinarily beautiful city, its little pedrinas and stone inlays, its azulas (blue ceramic tiles which covered many buildings as protection against the ocean climate) all marking each square centimeter as being lovingly attended by hand and craft. I had seen many other European cities, but Lisboa left a deep impact.  Later, in the early 1980’s I returned, to shoot a documentary (never finished) for the BFI on Raul Ruiz, and renewed my acquaintance with Lisboa, which had already been somewhat ravaged by modernity, and which had begun to look and feel like a run-down 3rd world city. Again I returned in the late 80’s, and had a traumatic and passionate affair with a Portuguese singer, who quite inadvertently influenced the making of All the Vermeers in New York, which is dedicated to her.

And again I returned, then with my partner, Teresa Villaverde, a young (at that time) Portuguese filmmaker who had pursued me for several years after meeting me at a small festival in Dunquerque, in 1994 or so, and with whom I lived 5 years.  In 1997 our daughter Clara was born, at the same time I was shooting the material that became Imagens de uma cidade perdida.  In 1998 we moved to Paris, where Teresa edited her film Os Mutantes, as the producer, Jacques Bidou, was French.   Afterward we moved to Rome where we lived.   On November 2, 2000, Teresa Villaverde Cabral – having almost completed shooting of a new film, Agua e Sal (Water and Salt, i.e., tears) in which a surrogate filmmaker (a curator of photo exhibits), who was played by an Italian actress, Galatea Ranzi, who happened to look almost exactly like Teresa, especially after a bit of hair-cutting, etc., is breaking up with her husband, played by Brazilian singer Chico Buarque, and who together have a young child, played by Clara Villaverde Cabral Jost, at her mother’s insistence  – kidnapped Clara from our home in Rome.  In the film the same occurs: Clara is kidnapped by her film mother. (More gruesome is that owing to typical film-world crap, Clara’s cinematic kidnapping was filmed after her real one – despite vehement objections I made to the Portuguese Juvenile court.)  To say a long and very unhappy period followed, as a completely corrupt Portuguese system closed around their “star” and legality was cavalierly trashed in the interests of an “important” Lisboa family. I have been unable to see my daughter, whom I had raised almost single-handedly for 3 and a half years while her mother tended the more important matter, to her,  of making her films (Os Mutantes and Agua e Sal), since August 2001. Teresa Villaverde has refused all contact, sent back gifts for Clara, and otherwise behaved in a manner typical to those called Parental Alienators. It has, for me, been a tragedy, which I am sadly certain has been doubled, or worse, in Clara. She will have her 14th birthday on March 27 of this year.

Clara, on her Facebook page, which was closed down the day I asked to “friend” her.

To say I have a conflicted sensibility about Portugal and Lisbon would be a considerable understatement. My experience there,  perhaps reflected in Imagens, is fully expressive of the Portuguese inclination towards fatalism and sadness. For them it is as if a part of their DNA, a cultural piece which they are obliged to carry. They have a particular word for it, saudade. However fanciful it sounds, the place is pervaded with it, and in a sense they are proud of it.   It is a phenomenon which is collectively neurotic, wherein they seem willfully to bring upon themselves actions which will induce a bit of saudade.   It is little wonder they are currently undergoing their economic travails, and surely in a way, they imagine they deserve it.

Imagens de uma cidade perdida runs 93 minutes. It’s slow and languid, like Lisboa. It is drenched in both beauty and melancholy, again, as Lisboa is. Its screening times and places in Rotterdam are as follows:

Friday, 01/28/2011, 14:30 Cinerama 5

Monday, 01/31/2011 14:30 Cinerama 7

Tuesday, 02/01/2011 22:15 LV 6

Also screening in Rotterdam will be a retrospective of my friend Nathaniel Dorsky’s films. See this.

[For post-festival comments on my own film see this, and for comments on Nathaniel’s screenings, see this.]

Triste, by Nathaniel Dorsky

Nathaniel Dorsky Retrospective at the Rotterdam International Film Festival

January 27th 28th 29th 30th 31st
Five shows in person and then the cycle will be repeated in a  slightly different order for five more days beginning on February 1st.  Approximate time for all shows: 4pm

Thursday, January 27th and repeated on Tuesday, February 1st
Titled: The Two Sides of Light

Love’s Refrain

FridayJanuary 28th and repeated on Wednesday, February 2nd
Titled: Songs of the Earth

A Fall Trip Home
Arbor Vitae

Saturday, January 29th and repeated on Saturday, February 5th
Titled: Songs of Another Time

Song and Solitude
The Visitation

Sunday, January 30th and repeated on Friday, February 4th
Titled: The Late Quartet


Monday, January 31st and repeated on Thursday, February 3rd,
Titled: The Hours and the Days

Hours for Jerome

Link for Rotterdam Festival

I met Nathaniel sometime in the mid-1980’s, when moving back to the Bay Area which I’d lived in during the late 1960’s and start of the 70’s. Back then he was already a fixture in the San Francisco film world, known for his films (17 Reasons Why, Alaya, Pneuma), but also for being a “film doctor.”   He was famed for his uncanny capacity to be able rescue a film, so that if someone shot a hopeless mess, he could give it a once over, find some editorial thread, and stitch it together, if not into gold, at least into something watchable, and if the stuff was there to do the trick, maybe more.  He was pretty busy at this trade.

I frankly don’t recall how we met – I assume some modest film event, but I really don’t remember. What I do remember is becoming his dealer – well, a kind of dealer. As a bottom-of-the-fiscal-barrel filmmaker I had a habit of buying up cheap, out-of-date, or otherwise odd or undesirable film stocks. When I had a weird emulsion, or old film carton and can, Nick would eagerly snap it up.  Or I gave it to him.  He was a kind of celluloid fetishist, enamored of the actual stuff – the celluloid base, the emulsion, the label, the can.  I was just a crude opportunist looking to save some money I didn’t have, and he was a lover of the stuff.  He tells me Triste was made of those rolls he got from me.  He would hand process stock, and in one of my own films he gave me a minute of outs of some beautiful hand-processed work, flashing blue.  Also some sections of outs from Alaya, sand shifting in the wind.  And he let himself be in that film, Rembrandt Laughing, a filmic valentine to one of the qualities that makes San Francisco such a pleasure.

Dorsky’s hand processed film, mangled on his living room rug

Frame grabs from Rembrandt Laughing

Along with himself as “actor,” and the blue, torn-emulsion film and the shifting grains of sand, he also became in a sense embodied in the film through his persona, which materialized in his scenes, in my use of his collection of sand, and in echoes that reverberate throughout the film of a certain sensibility which he is, and which I hope I faithfully reflected.   Nowadays thoughts of that film caste another tone as I am prompted to remember Jon A. English, the lead actor/musician, and composer for many of my films, who died 14 years ago.  And Roger Ruffin, in this film and 3 others of mine, who died this past year.  And as well thinking of the difficult time some others have had since then.  So it is a saving grace that I also have Nathaniel to think of, a glimmer of the serious joy which the film was about. Though we are very different souls, Nick and me, along some very fundamental places we share a deep kinship.

My life took me away from San Francisco, and a few years later, in Italy (a place Nick loves) the Pesaro Film Festival, (once a very lively and good one, perhaps still is), invited me to program some films for them.  One I chose was Nathaniel’s Alaya – 30 minutes of silence and sand.  For me it’s a gorgeous film, in its utter simplicity, its masterful editing, and I’ve seen it maybe 5 or 6 times.  One minute into it and I am in a meditative state, wandering in my home-grown kind of Buddhist thought.   Anyone who knows me at all knows how hard it is to get me to watch a film once, much less twice, and five times, well….!   However, programming it I thought it was likely a hard film for most viewers, and I suggested they place it last in line, lest people leave and miss the other films.  The screening was on a hot Italian summer day, the cinema had no air conditioning, and was packed.  It was like an oven.  The projector rolled and… and Nathaniel’s film was first despite my suggestion, and my thoughts went gray as I thought of the empty cinema to come.  Half an hour later though I was elated – almost no one left, and later, when the discussion time came, the film drew very positive comments.  I’d miscalculated something seriously – my trust in the audience?  my trust in Nathaniel’s artistry?  I learned a good lesson.


A dish of stones in Nathaniel’s apartment, shown in Rembrandt Laughing Frame grab, Alaya

The last time I saw Nathaniel was in Portland, Oregon, 5 years ago.  He was doing a screening for a small group, the Cinema Project.   The setting was a small art gallery, on the east side of the Willamette, and Nathaniel, as usual, was concerned with the projection – the color temperature, that the machine ran smoothly, at 18fps, focus.   He seemed a bit harried, and there wasn’t much chance to talk.  If I recall properly he, and a cluster from the screening, afterward went to a cafe, and Marcella and I joined, but it was a bit too much to actually have words.  Since then we’ve corresponded here and there, and I’ve watched with a warm pleasure as his work has found screenings around the world – in Paris, New York, London.  I’m trying to get him here to Korea, not only for the selfish reason to see his films, and to see him, but also he’s never been to Asia.  At least not physically.  He might like, and it would be good for his work to get seen in this part of the world.


“In film, there are two ways of including human beings. One is depicting human beings. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater and the latter is a form of poetry.”
Nathaniel Dorsky

PastourelleAubadeComplineSong and SolitudeThe VisitationLove’s Refrain Triste

As it turns out, one of my own films has been invited to Rotterdam as well so I’ll be able to catch up with Nick there, see the new films I haven’t and see some others again.   And if things work out, I suggested we go on the train to Den Haag for him to see the gorgeous View of Delft, and a few other Vermeers there at the Mauritshuis.   And if very lucky, perhaps the canals will be frozen and we can go ice-skating!


Nathaniel, photo by Jerome Hiler Threnody Variations


For further thoughts and reading see these:

Making Light of It

Art Forum article by P.F. Sitney (PDF, good pictures)

About Nathaniel Dorsky, website

Mubi interview

Scott McDonald interview

IndieWire, Dorsky and Brakhage talk

Review, Redcat screening, 2006

Review, Toronto 2010

Review of Devotional Cinema


Bowl of miso soup, Nathaniel’s feet, in Rembrandt Laughing


Nathaniel’s films are certainly not for everyone – in truth for a little minority of people who are open to a kind of rarified experience rather remote from the hurly-burly of our society, and most of the cinema it produces.  But if you’re of the inclination to enjoy, say, a Persian or Indian miniature, or marvel at the exquisite perfection of van Eyck’s “Als ich kann” or simply let the wonder of a flicker of light against a wall stun you, then his discreet and subtle work just might be your ticket.   So if at Rotterdam, or somewhere near, this is a rare chance to see this work.


Nathaniel skating, Alaya out-take, big bang: Rembrant Laughing

[Added March 8 2011: Marcella’s Video of Nathaniel on a little trip, talking and shooting.]

[March 14, 2011: new article and interview with Nathaniel.]


Though not at all religious, when in various places I tend to visit churches, especially in Europe, or South America, or, as well, temples in Asia.  While scarcely an academic, I think I am drawn to these places as they tend to tell you much about the cultures in which they were built, and which have (or haven’t) preserved them.   As the apparent trajectory of most civilizations seems to have transited a major period in which religion was the dominant organizing mechanism – determining roles, status, and social values – churches and temples are a repository both of a culture’s highest level in the arts, and at the same time provide deep clues as to the essential grounding of that culture’s present day behavior, even if, for the most part, the religion has been left behind.   This summer, traveling in Italy, a place with which I am pretty familiar, having traveled there many times and lived there some years, and where I was in my own description, a “church junkie,” I indulged this habit again.   Fortunately we were in different areas and I was able to see many new places, some of them utterly amazing.

While I could easily find my way there if in Bologna, a Google search fails to help me identify the church where this painting is, one of a series, this one depicting the execution of saint whomever she is.  As painting it is neither famed nor I  imagine thought by any experts to be “good.”  What I found remarkable was its Nude-Descending-Staircase compression of time, a morbid inversion of animation.

Italy, by the grace of its sun and warmth, its geological terrain, mountains and lakes, and long dazzling coastline; by its cuisine, and the unfolding richness of its cultural heritage, is a place of extraordinary sensuousness.  Sometimes it seems as if every part of it had been caressed by a lover of amazing talents, and we are given the residue of millenia of such opulence.   Nature, architecture, the arts – sculpture, painting, music, theater and city planning – all offer up a sumptuous feast for the eye, ear and palate, not to mention the brain.   One drowns.   Which perhaps explains the  seemingly perverse constancy of the morbid death-oriented imagery which the Catholic religion regurgitates endlessly, a nearly infinite litany of torture, the body maimed in myriad creative manners, such that the long list of saints which are celebrated in paint and stone seem primarily known for the manner in which they were dispatched from this earth, rather than for what they did in this life.

Thus, for example one of my favorite places in Rome, a bit off the beaten tourist path, is San Stefano in Rotondo, an ancient basilica begun in 468.  Architecturally it is an unusual structure, round from the outside, and inside with both circle of columns, but also a wall which bisects the center, with arches in it; light enters through a high clerestory.  The effect is a place of an embracing calm, a perfect architectonic centering which inherently induces a meditative state.  Such is the architecture.

Basilica di Santo Stefano al Monte Celio, Roma, after recent restoration

As if to counter-balance the beatific calm of this structure’s form, the walls are lined with relatively crude frescoes made in the 16th century depicting, as in a horror show, the death-theater of a sequence of saints.   Sometime, I suspect in the 19th century, labels were stenciled onto them, probably to point to literary description: who, when, how….

Aerial view, San Stefano in Rotondo

Again and again, Italy confronts us with seeming opposites.  The lovely small cities curled upon a craggy mountain-top,  roofs tumbling down the flanks of their settings; the wonderful narrow streets leading to the sudden openness of a lovely piazza, the dazzling high vistas overlooking an agricultural valley – all these are not the happy product of intelligent design and pure aesthetics, but are rather the by-product of times of constant war and piracy.  It was an enormous added cost to build on such heights, inaccessible and willfully, deliberately, difficult to reach.  Everything needed to be hauled up – food, water, the resources to make things.  All of this was a huge burden, and in a time when all of our work-saving machines did not exist:  if it came up it was hauled by man or animal.

Opposite Enna, Sicily, is Calascibetta, whose people are “stupid” said a very young and bright teenage guide to us; so much for neighborliness

As a culture Italy is a dense mosaic of isolated towns and cities, each rooted in a particular and peculiar history, so deeply embedded that most inhabitants feel more of their town or city than of a nation.  The sense of being Italian seems only to emerge during World Cup football tournaments, when rooting for the Azzuris is a collective national mania, or when Italy is criticized by an outsider, even if it is the same critique Italians level against themselves domestically.  In these two cases the regional and city identifications lapse and Italians are, if only briefly, “one.”   This regional identification derives from not so long ago, when most cities were in fact little states, busily warring with one another, making alliances, and breaking them.  Fidarsi bene; non fidarsi meglio. Hence the city walls, fortifications, and tendency whenever possible to build them on readily defensible heights.   Down below were armies, brigands, and insecurity.   This was Italy’s history from the break-up of the Roman Empire until Garibaldi’s campaign unified the peninsula in 1860.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

The fragmentation of Italy into smaller units, centered on a city or region, is seen clearly in the shifts in styles in the arts and architecture.  While, for example, the Baroque is a general style (1600-1800) its effects shift considerably as one moves down the peninsula, from the relative austerity to the north to the often heavy and opulent excesses of Sicilia.   These “tastes” are also reflected in the balance of the culture – food, dress, music, and of course, behaviors to match.  Those to the north despise the southerners as “beasts” and  point variously to their wild driving manners, their menagerie of organized crime syndicates  – the Mafia, Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta – their corruption, and other proofs of the lower status of the mezzogiorno. Never mind that the country’s most recent scandals have come out of Lombardy and Milano, with its leading star being none other than Silvio Berlusconi, the Premier, who now seems chronically mired in mud, whether it is fiscal, legal or sexual.   And is also in bed with the Sicilian Mafia.   As were his predecessors.  Still, even a casual survey of the Italian boot finds it more orderly and Germanic to the north, and more, well, maybe African, as one heads south.   Such are the blessings of Italy’s traditional regionalism and diversity.

Mosaic, Rimini

[With a backlog of pictures from Italian travels of the last few years, I will start to print some here, soon, the first groups to be called Sicilian Suites.]

Walker Evans, shadow self-portraits

The other evening, on returning to Seoul, I went with a few friends to an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs.  The setting was high up on the 18th floor of a classy building facing the Olympic Park in the southeast corner of the city in a new Photography Museum.   I had been acquainted, closely, with the work of Evans since long ago in 1960, where I was introduced to photography at the Institute of Design at IIT, where I studied a few years, one in a class by Aaron Siskind.  I recall having bought a book of Evans’ pictures, poring over it lovingly.  I am pretty sure I also saw a number of direct prints at the Chicago Art Institute.   And since then I have frequently returned to Evans, in books, and in isolated photographs in museums, and of course in the now ubiquitous famous images imprinted on our culture from those which appeared in James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men.   Walker Evans’ images not only reflect America, but they are now deeply embedded in its culture, they are a profound part of America.

Sharecroppers wife.Country church, Beaufort South CarolinaFrame house, Charleston, S.C.

A handful of Walker’s pictures have gathered for themselves an iconic status as quintessential American images, as with the sharecropper’s wife, an image which can stand with Grant Wood’s American Gothic, or any number of those of illustrator Norman Rockwell, or Jasper Johns’ Flags, or the Chrysler building in New York City, or Edward Hopper’s paintings.   Each of these, along with many others, captures some fundamental element of what makes America itself, just as certain images manage to condense and symbolize other cultures:  a Giotto or Michaelangelo for Italy, a Hokusai for Japan, or Goya or Ribera for Spain.

With Walker Evans there is a seeming self-effacement, in which he disappears into his work, as if he chose to not exist, but to be supplanted by those things which he photographed, as did Eugene Atget.  It is a work which is minimalist, direct, almost as if there were nothing to it.  For the most part he presents things frontally, as if to simply say “there is this.”   And then this.  And this.   It seems almost artless, and yet it is of the highest art, capturing so much with seemingly so little.   And yet cumulatively what emerges is a very distinct vision, one which would seem to be easily replicable, but which is not.   Evans’ legacy is vast, written in a long list of photographers, very widely different, whose work can be seen refracted in Evans’ lens:  Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Joel Meyerwitz, Paul Strand, among many other Americans; or Berndt and Hilla Becher abroad.  Or among painters, Warhol, or even Rauschenberg, along with Johns and Hopper, and many others.    The list is long and would include filmmakers, such as James Benning and certainly myself.

Easton, Pennsylvania

Bessemer, AlabamaReedsville, W. VirginiaGraveyard, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In books, however well made, or on the internet, one doesn’t really get to see these pictures.  The exquisite craft and artful concerns which went into their making disappear in the reduction to what the digital means of the net can do, or even in the best of printing for books.  To see the actual images one must go to a show like the one I went to here, or to a museum with archival quality prints.  The tonal range of Evans’ work is gorgeous – a rich delicate palette of grays, here and there a white, or a dense deep black.   On looking at the prints one can see how attuned his eye was to these qualities, and how much control he took, as well as how much he was attracted to certain things from which he could compose his images with an artist’s sensitivity to the effects of his medium.   As with other truly great photographers, it is this attentiveness to the nature of his medium which elevates him beyond just “taking pictures.”   As simple as his images appear, they are in truth rich and complex demonstrations of what can be done artistically with a camera, film, chemistry, light and a subject.  If you wish to really understand Evans’ capacities, go to an exhibit such as the one I saw, or visit a museum with a good collection you can access.   It is similar to seeing a real Durer watercolor of a bird’s wing, Wing of a Roller, as I did in Vienna, and seeing the pale reproduction the museum there offers.  There is really no comparison.

As I wandered this exhibit, one time, then another and then another, re-seeing these images, my eyes moistened.  In part it was owing to the artful beauty – not just the “look” but the content of these images, and their rich understanding and embrace of life, our lives.  In part perhaps it was due to these images being far closer to the reality of my young life than is today’s America – there has been a profound change, and these images recall for me the “Negro” shanty-town I would visit across a large field from the house where I lived when going to high-school in Fairfax, Virginia.  They recall the times I hitch-hiked in the mid-west in the late 60’s, in Wisconsin and Illinois, and later from California to Montana in the early 70’s.  Since that time a flush of wealth and corporate uniformity has left much of this older America in the dust, and the new suburban housing developments, the cities all gleam with a thin plastic veneer that lacks the character of that older time.  Perhaps my tears were nostalgic, a signal of passing times and loss.  In part they came as I sensed something our country has lost – not merely of the “look” which Evans images captured and which could not be found today – but of the soul.   However ragged, however poor, however crude, that old America had a character which our present America lacks.  Perhaps it has to do with hard times, with genuine difficulty, with real work.  I sense the same thing in Europe where it seems that everything has gone slack and what is present exists more for tourists – even if they live there – than being emblematic of a real life.   Or perhaps it was for my recognition that those shadow-portraits which Walker Evans took of himself in his youth reminded me of my own gangly young self, unsure, as one must always be unsure, taking first steps out into the world, yet feeling that something stirred inside, and something would come of one’s tentative efforts.  And naturally, being shadows, they reminded of our evanescence.   All together these feelings entered me, looking at these wonderful photographs, and traced a life-long etching in my own soul.

Child’s grave, Alabama

Thank you, Walker Evans.

[The Metropolitan Museum in New York maintains a very large on-line collection of Evans’ work which is deeply instructive for watching how an artist grows.  There’s very much, but it is worth it to take some time to look, carefully, as he did.]

Piazza del duomo, Siracusa

I’d come to Sicily, so I told myself in my mind, to make a film.  What that film was remained very vague, a thinly imagined sequence of images, or more just thoughts on how to make some images out of visions in my head. The images derived from past visits to Sicily, or images I’d seen in books. The medium was my now aging but hardly used Sony XDcam, a high-definition camera capable of remarkable clarity and resolution – as can be seen exquisitely in James Benning’s RUHR and PIG IRON.  In nearly 2 years I’d shot almost nothing with it, though I loaned it out to a Korean filmmaker friend, Hwang Cheol Mean,  to make a feature, and to some of my students to make some films – one showing next month in the Vancouver Film Festival, (A Silk Letter, by Kwang Sangwoo).  I imagined wedding the XDcam’s resolution to the multiple imagery I’d explored a bit in my own Swimming in Nebraska, though taking a very different, more “classical” approach.

On arriving in Sicily I was immediately let-down, though rather predictably so – after all I had been to this island some 5 or 6 times in the last three decades – to Taormina, Siracusa, Palermo, Cefalu and Tusa and other places.  And though I had found these places all arresting and fascinating, I had also, since 1978, been appalled at the squalid mess which Sicilians had made of their own land.  Abandoned illegal buildings littered the landscapes, as did trash, dull high-rise housing, ill-designed periferia, a clatter of advertising signs, poorly built roads, and the negative din of the Sicilian way of living.  And now an autostrada rises on stilts, flattening nature’s curves, impertinently striding across mountain and valley, reducing geology to a 2 dimensional diagram.  Roads are crammed with macho drivers, 10 cm off your tail-pipe, racing to pass you on a blind curve, proving their manhood to themselves and their girlfriends; or stopped on a blind-corner for a quick espresso or to talk with a friend, arguing over double parking – a constant chaos of disorder and a disrespect for all organized ways of social living.  And owing to pragmatic things – my summer vacation – we’d come in August, when the coasts and beaches are inundated with Italians al mare, making for an Asiatic urban density crammed on the beaches, a lemming-like cultural mass gang-bang.  Not an auspicious time to be present.  And in reality I knew all this before deciding to go there to attempt a film.

Cefalu beach, Sicily, around August 10

Almost immediately I felt the sense that I would make no film, though I did make a few desultory attempts at a few shots – shots having nothing to do with those I’d orchestrated in my mind:  after all, the ones in my mind had no corollaries in reality.  And something in me choked at the thought of aiming my lens at the squalid mess which reality presented.  Driving inland from the coasts, there was some relief – suddenly vast open country-side, with small towns perched on mountain-top redoubts, warbly winding roads and little traffic, but with smoke-smudged skies making for a dull burned out landscape of dried fields, an almost colorless range of dim earth tones and darks, a flat off-white sky, and again – nothing of the images I’d imagined to make, which required bright blue skies into which to blue-screen other images, or dark areas where I could also imprint other imagery.

Church interior, restored

Compounding this disillusion was the on-going wrestling match in my mind about the whole process of even bothering to add another image to the already endless deluge which our culture makes automatically.  Something in me resists, and whispers, “enough.”  The “enough” runs from a desired  Zen silence to a questioning of my creative energies:  I ponder if I am burnt out, as all creative people at some time are, or gone to seed.  Though frankly the idea that this might be so doesn’t bother me as I see it as a natural process – sure, we get old, tired of doing what we do and I’ve been making films for almost 50 years, and while I have vivid creative insights that intrigue me, most of the process has dulled into boredom.  Unless the images are something I have never seen, I am immediately promptly depleted of energies, a voice inside saying “another fucking image like the others” and I stop.  The images I had imagined were not those, but then they didn’t seem to want to materialize for me in reality.  Instead there were only what the Sicilian landscape offered up – Baroque splendors, Greek temples, great mountainous ranges, deep valleys – all that was there, but encrusted with the ruinations of mindless modern man, rampantly destroying everything of value in the name of an idiot consumerism that seemed to leave us all empty, able to toss a plastic cup, beer bottle, a cigarette pack or whatever onto the grounds of a 2,500 year old temple now turned into a costly-to-enter Disney artifact, neatly fenced in, labeled, controlled, and always now the book/trinket tourist store at the exit, after paying 8 or 10 Euro to enter.   Whatever I had imagined – despite my direct experience contradicting those visions – simply did not exist.  The camera stayed in the trunk of the car as we meandered from Messina to Milazzo to Enna, to Cefalu, and Palermo.  Yes, I took a lot of stills – competent images of no creative import at all – but the video camera, except for a few desultory shots, stayed unused.  With each passing day it became clearer that whatever it was I had intended to make, the actual material in images did not exist, and not being Hollywood, I could not pay to construct them to exist.  Instead what existed was a floundering and confusion, and a hard-nosed acknowledgment of a kind of defeat.

What that defeat is remains a bit unclear to me.  I addressed this in part earlier in these pages when writing of An Audience of (N)one – of the present reality that for all practical purposes the only outlets for the kind of work I do is now festivals, and festivals offer a bad environment for that kind of work.  And further, whereas not long ago – a decade or so – I could more or less assume a handful of festivals would show whatever work I do, I can no longer make that assumption.  The last three or four films I’ve made – Over Here, Parable, Rant, and Swimming in Nebraska, all have either had no invitations, or only one or two, to no tangible effect.  And contrary to 10 or 15 years ago, there is no little niche market, no chance at all of a sale to some Euro TV, to make a little money of it.  So, on a practical, material level, there is no evident point to making such work.  Nor do cultural pats on the head and ego-strokes really have any meaning for me. What is left is seemingly only my own pleasure in making things despite the final reality that when all is said and done, it seems they are made only for me.  And I have to pay to make them!  At 67 the enticement of this is rather diminished.  So surely this is one element of my sense of defeat here in Sicily.

Duomo, Agrigento

But it is perhaps a lesser element.  Of more import is my feeling that in our current culture, the vast swirl of imagery no longer holds any weight of the kind I care about – something spiritual, something of what I find in art, something that moves the mind and soul.  Or its weight is solely determined by what I feel to be utterly the wrong things:  the devastation of Sicily’s urban and rural landscapes is caused by exactly the same thing which has raped the value of all images.  That thing is money, and the system – capitalism – which has warped the human mind into an empty vessel of consumption, such that people can and will destroy the very things they assert to love and value in its pursuit.  A beautiful landscape will be taken, encrusted with signs, marketed, sold, and as I have seen again and again in the last weeks, laid waste in the name of making a profit. Whether it is in the half-built concrete skeletons of “abusive” buildings to be found here, or in the “legal” hotels and second homes that have transformed once small and sleepy fishing villages into cheap temporary playgrounds for the urban masses, or it is in the clutter of vehicles that cram the highways, or the endless stores peddling the same things from one end of this island (or the whole world) to the other – the “brands” from MacDonalds to Gucci, to be found now almost anywhere – all these collude to trash the very world that we live in, and whose beauties we seem so adept at first dulling and then utterly destroying.

In such a world, it seems that another image, however well crafted, however deep in intended meaning or however well “artistically” conceived, becomes merely another instantly discardable commodity – as at a festival, where “serious” film aficionados flit quickly from one film to another, rushing to cram as many difficult-to-see films in a day or week as they can.  To feed this frenzy seems to me an increasingly dubious matter pointing to a logic in which perhaps the proper response is renunciation – to simply stop, to withdraw, to be silent.  Perhaps though, these are merely the thoughts of an older man who is soon to be made permanently silent, like it or not.  Or perhaps the ruminations of an experienced soul that finally, as the closing comes, must acknowledge that it’s all really for nothing, a way to bide the time before the extinction of one’s self, or in the longer view, one’s entire culture, and finally universe.

Greek temple in Agrigento

The last days we’ve been wandering the remains of the Greek colonies which dotted the Sicilian landscape 2,500 years ago.  In Selinunte, the less touristic of these, a vast upheaval of stones – toppled columns, lintels, capitals, walls, the gridded outlines of foundations – all hint at a once-vibrant culture in flower, then invaded, burned and destroyed by the Carthaginians, who, as it occurred, lost the Punic wars, laying the ground for many of the myths of our culture, myths which still echo today.  In the sprawl of tumbled stone, one sees the carvings, the architectural sinews, the fragments of what was a great labor, and tries to imagine the culture which made this, as it were, all by hand. And these are but the hard elements – not the cloth, the food, the paintings, the less survivable materials of that long ago time. They had not our modern machines, and what is there was placed with labor – slave, animal, with very minimal use of the simple rules of physics: a bit of leverage here, a simple pulley there.  The massive stones were carved and nudged into place, the columns with central pins, and gravity the fundamental architectural glue to hold it all together.  Amid the jumble of these remnants it is difficult to piece together the serene world which it seemed must have intermittently existed, with its exquisitely designed temples rising on the crest of a hill, overlooking the dazzle of the Mediterranean’s rich blue.  One tries, but falters.

In the same moment one sees the furious forces of hatred which drove the Carthaginians to expend all the inverse labor needed to topple the city and leave it a heap of rubble – as to say, “so much for your Gods and culture.”  We see only the weathered stones, where once the same ground would have been littered not only with the earthly stuff of rock, but also caked in blood and the slaughtered corpses of the inhabitants.  Such a wreckage would not be easily done, and required its own immense work, driven by some demonic need to delete the other’s culture – their gods, their temples, their world – as if it were a mortal offense that it merely existed.  Against such a history the costly placement of the cities that followed, far up on a mountain top, begins to make sense:  all the effort to haul the stones of architecture, the provisions for water, to bring foodstuffs to these places, and then to ornament them all with cultural, religious, artistic investment, which could not so easily be destroyed as those coastal cities of the Greeks – it falls into an understandable range.  Still, with each town and city we saw – Enna, Agrigento, Scicli, Modica, Ragusa – each rich with a heritage of Baroque churches and palazzi, and remnants of earlier cultures – Greek, Sickel – the amount of pure work involved left me stunned.  Today it is nearly impossible for us to comprehend the levels of social investment which these towns – each with a splendid cathedral and all its interior decorations, a bishop’s palace, numerous other churches, and many other palazzi, all built and decorated in impressive style – imply: all constructed in effect “by hand.”  We really can’t comprehend how things were made without the advantages and efficiencies of electricity, of power tools, of all the things we now take for granted (and with which we so often build such graceless and ugly things).  To imagine merely cutting the wood to make the framework by which the stones were placed to build the cathedrals is already beyond our capacities; to imagine the small army of craftsmen deployed to make the carvings which are an integral part of these structures must elude us. Nor can we comprehend the numbers of people involved, which by our measure is small.  To then add that in those times those involved in agricultural production were not, as in ours, a few percent, but the great majority of the population, renders all this even more difficult to understand.  That there was so much in effect “surplus labor” to devote to taking everything to the nearest high, defensible, site, and building there under great additional stress, and lathering it all with costly artistic values (for religious reasons), all points then backwards to the great labor which the Carthaginians gave to toppling all the material signs of the Greek community of Selinunte. Which, as Sicily inescapably does, brings one around to the immense power – however evidently perverse – of religion in human history:  here it is clear it is one of the primal forces which propels human endeavors.

Again and again, the major elements of the historical remnants of society here are religious: the temples of the Greeks, the cathedrals of the Christians, the monasteries and convents, these are the focus of these societies, where the greatest social investment was placed. Conversely these were the sites which, as symbols of the core values of their societies, were the targets of enemies: Selinunte and its temples (along with the adjacent community) were destroyed because they represented the values of that culture.  Similarly, if not in Italy, but further north, Catholic iconography was attacked in the Reformation, which focused on the purported false values which they represented: churches, convents and monasteries, were destroyed in the religious wars ignited by Protestantism.

Nagasaki, August 1945Berlin, 1945

Within my grasp, historically, I might only vaguely comprehend these things by their modern equivalents:  perhaps the rubble of 1945 Berlin or Hiroshima, or more recently, the ravaged remnants of Babylon in Iraq, where perhaps unconsciously, the American military simply expunged from history traces of a civilization far far older than its own:  “Kilroy was here.”   The impulse to utterly destroy “the other” seems deeply implanted in the human psyche, whether we call the ground “religious” or “ideological.” The same story is to be seen in other parts of the world, where other non-Western cultures behaved similarly, obliterating all signs of those they had conquered, only to later themselves be conquered and subjected to the same erasure.

Juxtaposed to this massive lesson in human history, my small work in orchestrating for a brief moment the flight of photons from a complex and vulnerable projecting apparatus to a screen, and then to the inner screen of the spectator’s eye and then brain, each filtering in its own manner that actual image and its interpretation, all seems a self-evident folly.  Combined with the other the other factors I’d confronted in Sicily I found myself paralyzed, at least in terms of making the imagined film.  These and other far more mundane matters such as the pure and simple hassle of getting out the camera, mounting it on the lovely carbon-fiber Sachtler tripod, and then dealing with the iffy on-off button of the camera which I’d been warned by those who had borrowed it earlier was inclined to have a mini-mind of its own, going on and off randomly – that was quite enough to provide ample excuse to not do.  Instead I found myself making 100’s of still photographs each day, yearning for a small HD camcorder, blogging, and inventing plenty of distractions to assure the would-be film was never given any chance at all.

In chess, a now-standard response to the opening White E4, is to bring the Black pawn C forward to C5.  This was, in 1500 an innovative move, developed by some Italians and became known as the Sicilian Defense.  It subsequently became popular for some centuries, though later it was criticized, and lost ground.  In the last century it became used again, with chess masters  employing it and is currently used 25% of games.  Statistical analysis though shows it a 47% losing proposition, though simply being the second to play, is inherently to be placed on the defensive and a weaker position.   It appears to me I made such a move on this Sicilian trip, and despite experience which should have cautioned me, at least in terms of filmmaking, this journey was a predictable loss.  In terms of cannoli, granita, arancini, pizzoli, good local wines (and bad), and a vast array of arts from ancient (2,500 BC) to relatively recent (1800), it was a feast.  Now to see if we can run, work, fast it all off…

Ordinary cafe offerings, Gela

[For more thoughts on Sicily see cinemaelectronica, or check here later when I hope to add some further thoughts provoked by these travels.

[A few days after posting this my friend Linn Ehrlich sent me this, which we can’t figure out how to post under comments so I’ll paste it here]:

Marco dell’Utri, of Palermo, long time confident of Silvio Berlusconi

June 30.

Arriving in Italy, as usual, I was  immediately told the latest communal unhappinesses.   For the moment it’s two things: the dell’Utri case, in which a long-term close associate of Sig Berlusconi, President of the Consiglio – to say the top guy here – one Sig dell Utri, was sentenced to 7 years in prison for association or some such with the Mafia.  Of course Berlusconi asserts this is merely another case of the “red” judiciary finding one reason or another to attack him.   This is scarcely Silvio’s only brushing with the mafia, simply the most recent.  Most Italians accept and believe their man has had long associations with the Sicilian brotherhood, securing his first wealth from them, and being indebted since.  Of course, a predecessor, Guilio Andreotti, many times President del Consiglio, was not thought to be connected to the Mafia, but to be perhaps its top man or at minimum the puppet of its cupola.  Berlusconi’s mentor, the Socialist Bettino Craxi, was just plain corrupt and died in exile in Tunisia.   Life as usual in Italia.

Andreotti, Berlusconi, Craxi

The other matter of unhappiness is a law designed to close down reporters (and implicitly others) from spilling the facts on such things as state-sponsored telephone tapping.  This has, typically, brought out the usual (leftists) to the piazza.  And naturally has inflamed the newspaper headlines which normally inflate any modest matter into inch-thick typefaces.  Rhetorical amplification is the standard in all things Italian.  Sempre in crisi, la bella Italia.   These matters of bold type will be supplanted in weeks with new matters of equally cosmic political weight.

Of course, aside from these theatrical matters, Italy is mired in the same economic fix as much of Europe, with high-unemployment, a large deficit, and is facing a grim future of alleged “austerity.”   This is translated in local terms to even more social distrust than is usual in cynical Italy, home of Machiavelli, and the standard operating procedure, “fidarsi bene, non fidarsi meglio” or “to trust is good, not to trust is better.”  So a friend informed it was more necessary than ever to keep a firm hand on a handbag on the street, or that her husband, working at a high level for major corporations, had to now haggle afterward for the contracted pay.  To say, life as customary in Italy, but bumped up a level or two, so that what happened almost always with the plumber or car mechanic, now happens at an executive corporate level.   Of course, this is only to be expected in a culture which has a motto like theirs.  It is ingrained into the soul at an early age and expresses itself in a constant of argumentativeness, a propensity for cheating,  of rhetorical inflation of all things problematic, so that social life, and its political expression, becomes a constant background noise of negativity.  This, for any human, is a appalling situation requiring denial – which I think most Italians adapt as a defensive posture even while they fully participate in it, thinking their tendency to butt in line, stop traffic for talking to a friend, or wangling an advantage by whatever family connection will serve,  etc., is all normal if done by themselves, and only objectionable when done by someone else.  The companion is a theatrical mask of happy sociality as seen in the constant kissy-faced greetings and departures, hugs and tactile contacts to signify bonding where all bonds are suspect.  Deep inside, the person kissing and being kissed awaits the knife in the back.  The fabled mafia “baci di honore.”  Benvenuta a Italia, where this story is ancient and the “lessons learned” have poisoned the culture for millennia.  The later addition, perhaps of necessity, of the Catholic religion’s obsession with “forgiveness” make for a toxic combination in which collectively all confess to being cattivo (bad) and all are given a blanket pardon.  Little wonder in such a world that a blatantly bad soul like Berlusconi rises to the top like cream, as he exemplifies the real Italian character to perfection: a master of deceit, from his hair implants and face-lifts, to his toes playing footsy with teen-aged girls on his private estate in Sardinia – a modern-day Caligula.  And many, if not all, in la bella Italia admire this capacity to wiggle and wangle through the thickets of Italian law and politics, and get to play with the bimba’s to heart’s content.   It makes their line-butting and small-time cheating all the more palatable, while making the priestly taste for small boys rather understandable.

The flip-side is the cultural elevation of saints to untouchable pedestals, where virtue becomes unattainably distant unless you are into real hard-core masochism and would like to have your head, breasts, arms, or legs chopped off, or grilled, or baked in a bronze horse, or be burned at the stake, hung, disemboweled, or otherwise dispatched from this world to the hypothetically better one in the sky.  This cartoon tale is plastered across every church in Italy, of which there are many, albeit in this day the congregations are primarily tourists, shuffling along, gazing at this panoply of torture all (mostly) elegantly framed in the rich colors of Giotto, gold-leaf frames, and other tricks to cover the actual content: the supreme masochist is Christ, who, depending on which era and geography, hangs from his cross, a gorgeous gay hunk (see Michaelangelo’s Christ with Cross in the Chiesa sopra Minerva) or a Mel Gibson-style bloodied corpse further to the South where the baroque takes on an oppressive heaviness absent to the north.

Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St Peter

The second tier of this theological drama are the Apostles, to be seen in their various modes of departure according to Christian mythology: St Peter crucified up-side-down; St Paul beheaded, and on through the whole list of the magical 12, to arrive at Judas, the bad luck number 13, who committed suicide.  Only Saint John mythically eluded being dispatched before mother nature beckoned.  After this august list, comes the chorus of myriad lesser saints, each seemingly celebrated not for what they did in life, which often-times remains highly obscure, but rather for the grisly manner in which they exited this life’s stage: trampled, gouged, burned, toasted, chopped, baked, boiled, become pin-cushioned with arrows – in whatever manner one could abuse the animal flesh of man, Italians have dreamed it up (of course they are not alone in this creative thrust.)  The churches of Italy offer a full course of elegant imagery in all of this.  (A jaunt further north, to the images of Grunewald in, gives another more Germanic flavor, and another uncanny glimpse into another culture.)

Depending on your political inclinations, this process continues – if Left, it is St Pasolini, whose body was crushed by a contemporary beast, the automobile, and whose last images confirm as usual his sainted corporal existence.  If Right, there are the martyrs who bombed the nearby, as I write, Bologna train station, in 1982, or of course, Mussolini, whose body was appropriately mangled, and thus given the sign of a certain sainthood.

Benito Mussolini and Clara Petacci

I suspect most Italians would laugh at such a correlation of their deep historical roots and their contemporary society.  The laughter would be nervous though, a discomfort with the nature of fate, of it being suggested that their present behavior, as demonstrated in their politics, or in the common everyday practices of their lives, was stamped into their DNA, something inescapable.

[For us, an interlude of 12 days, in Lisbon, Toledo, Madrid, and now resuming for the balance of the summer our Italian sojourn.]

Tiles in bar in Madrid

Yesterday, July 19,  flying in from Madrid in a Ryanair cheapo flight (whose draconian baggage limits caught many and upped the costs of flying 100%) – a flight delayed in Madrid for 2 hours in a nod to the present economic crisis (the Barcelona air-traffic controllers had gone on strike at the fiscal squeeze being placed, just as had the Metro employees in Madrid) – the mostly Italian passengers applauded, as it seems only Italians do, as we landed.  What this burst of applause means must suggest something of Italians.  But what?  In a culture in which the term “sono professionista” (I’m a professional) is often used to block all further discourse and especially questions as to the competence of the person using the phrase, perhaps the applause is for the successful accomplishment of the “professionista” up front, whom all internally doubt to be capable.  In my brief time of working, or attempting to work, in Italy, the assertion “sono professionista” sent cringes through my soul, it being a certain sign of the imminent fuck up.   Or perhaps it is an acknowledgment of the Shakespearean assertion that “all life is a stage” and the Italian operatic sensibility in its current phase of decay takes the simple matter of being an airline pilot as a show-biz role, something warranting a reward of applause on the safe delivery of the airplane’s cargo to its destination.   The same herd of Italians will promptly, once the wheels touch ground, unbuckle, rise to get their luggage, and be told by the staff – which must be accustomed to this behavior pattern with Italians – to sit back down, buckle up, and stay seated until the pilot has finished taxiing to the disembarkation point and announces so, turning off the little buckle-up sign right in front of their eyes.  These days this behavior is also accompanied by the mass turning on of cell phones, and the admonition to keep electronic instruments OFF until notified its OK.  Few listen or obey.   Perhaps the applause is for the luck of having arrived at all despite the chronic violation of these various rules by those applauding?

Approaching almost anywhere, globalized grafitti, Inc., in this case Rome

And today, July 22, we were to depart Bologna for Roma and then swiftly on towards Matera, in Basilicata.  Gone to the family car held by sister Chiara, to be borrowed the coming month, a turn of the key betrayed a dead battery of a car unused the last month or two.  Waving down, with battery cables in hand, a car, we got help which shortly soured: the key/anti-theft mechanism seemed to not work, of which a later word indicated this quirk had been on-going the last year.  The “trick” to by-pass it didn’t work, and our journey turned into a 4 hour car-side vigil for Marcella (windows downed on the last juice of the batteries, the key trapped in the vehicle, and luggage, cameras, valuables therein, and sister’s key having been slipped under the doorway, we were trapped.)  A later walk, talk, tow-truck, and luckily nearby car mechanic resulted in a typical Italian prognosis: 12 days until the item would arrive, 400 Euros in cost to replace the malfunctioning key mechanism (sure to escalate in both time and money), and Marcella and I were Bologna’haid another day.  (In Seoul I am sure this would have been resolved in a few hours, at far less cost.)  And the summer’s plans were skewed, as the cost of a rental car for 5 weeks is excessive for me (1200 Euro + gas, etc), and now we scramble to alter the summer’s plans – where to go, how, a little existential crisis to spice the summer heat.

Since I was a child, landing on a primitive airway in Rome in 1951, and then taken on a train ride to Trieste in which Italians shared what little they had in that time of post-war poverty, I have been in love with Italy.  Like many kinds of love, it has inverted, become a love/hate.  In more recent times the hate has predominated, as I and most certainly Italy have changed, in ways antithetical.  Italy, in the face of things modern, seems to have lost touch with itself, defacing the abundant beauties which almost every town holds, the centro perhaps almost intact, but the surrounding areas encrusted with squalid ill-thought modern buildings,  highways, and further out American-style suburban sprawl eating into the country-side.  Within the centro the tackiness of our globalized world has intruded in the form of the usual corporate branding logos and the now near-universal graffiti, here defacing a heritage of extraordinary architecture and urban design.  This is not the desolate world of the Bronx, circa 1978 or so, when graffiti represented a flush of creative life in the face of urban death, but rather now a knee-jerk genuflection of gangsta alienation whether in Toulouse, Madrid, Copenhagen, Moscow or Rome.  The periferia’s have invaded, bringing with them their tracings of gangland aesthetics.  The past is utterly disrespected, but its erstwhile replacement has none of the cultural weight which gives the old its heft.  Instead a unity of universal ignorance washes over everything, a Simpsonite dog-piss assertion of “I own this,” however wrong and false, sprayed on a wall built 500 or 1800 years ago, by Michaelangelo or Giulio Cesare.   The alienated scrawl reeks of the New York of crack-heads but incorporated by Nike, the globalized claim “just do it – this is mine” writ large and in a dull uniformity lacking all originality.  A McDonalds of the mind blankets the landscape, its fraudulent branding of individual personhood enriching the spray-paint makers and reducing the local to cartoon universality.  In keeping with the source, the way is often littered with needles and discarded condoms.

Almost no place is immune, though our recent visit to Toledo made an exception.  A long ago visit to Toulouse saw its mostly two-story center converted into a comic book, top to bottom, its lovely architecture no longer readable.  When living 10 years ago in Rome I saw this incremental journey of  defacement shift from the grim walls of Tuscalana and Nomentana, then into Testaccio and San Lorenzo, and then the walls of Trastevere.  Since it has crossed the banks of the river into the heart of the city, now to be seen anywhere, be it on the ancient Roman walls, or the magnificent baroque churches, once sacrosanct and now but another surface to announce another version of “Kilroy was here.”    There is though, now little left to kill.

Bust in the Pincio

Back when I lived in Rome I filmed the busts of the Pincio, a park above Piazza del Popolo, where the 19th century bourgeoisie had memorialized themselves in sculpture – bankers and writers and businessmen juxtaposing themselves to Italy’s greats – Galileo, Dante, Michaelangelo and Marconi and the long illustrious list of others whom history has graced on this lovely land.  Their noses are knocked off, cigarettes dangle from their mouths, and their faces are smeared with paint and nazi swastikas on their foreheads, an ironic commentary on the very short lives we lead and the “respect” we are accorded by the future.  The barbarians have sacked Roma yet again.

Nowadays almost every nook and cranny of the past is reduced into a variant of Disneyland, often in the name of “education.”  The Caravaggio’s of the Chiesa della Francese are adorned with explicatory framing, placards explaining to the herds of tourists their meaning.  Only 15 years ago I could stand solitary for a half-hour at this place, soaking in the images (though needing to plop a coin in the lighting system); today one fights for a place to see as crowds jostle to read the plaques and gaze in unison, fingers pointing out the obvious, murmuring wisdoms to their husbands or others.   The same occurs in almost every place of beauty or exception, the price of cut-rate mass tourism which has seen the floors of the Siena cathedral covered with cheap Masonite boards to protect it from the bus-loads of visitors who disgorge each day, shuffling over the ancient stone patterns, following their guides, who now can offer only a picture of what their presence threatens.   Whether a human artifact, or natural, all our globe is now so diminished, with hiking trails and garbage leading to the peak of Mt Everest, which recently was “conquered” by a 12 year old.  As the most remote is converted into an adventurer’s McDonalds its corollary is the oil smeared across the gulf of Mexico, with 8 billion souls assuring no square inch of our earth has been left untouched by human foot or hand, or the consequences of our occupation.  Italy serves as a cautionary example, its extraordinary history and heritage now perversely acting as an instrument of its destruction.

In the backyard outside where I write this in Bologna, in the darkened evening, the sound of television floats – I went to look and below in the open yard below, the glow of a screen illuminates the family which gathers before this altar, outside, watching.  Doubtless, since he owns and controls almost all of it in Italy, the content is determined by Silvio Berlusconi, broadcasting his view of the world to each home here.  His view of the world is animated by leering older men prancing with scantily clad bouncing breasts, giggling at inanities and off-color jokes.  Of course, one could easily claim this was always so, since the emperors who ruled Rome’s empire, on through the lurid excesses of the Church-led renaissance, and thence to the present.

From my film, Roma, un ritratto

[Now in Matera, where unsolicted, I heard from a barman, serving me up a cappuccino and hearing my English, tell of how he’d lived in Philadelphia 5 years, and had a son legally American, and they’d both like to go back as there is “nothing here” for them. (Good luck on finding a job in the USA these days).  Then in an impromptu meeting with an aunt of Marcella’s she began a lament of how shameful it was to be an Italian these days, and how she and her husband think to move abroad, to France, or somewhere, anywhere.  They are  a comfortably well situated professional couple, retired.  And then a friend of Marcella’s, last night, talking with another friend who lives now in Modena, was saying how she’d like to move back to the area, to be with her boyfriend, from her good job in Venice.  The other friend humorously but seriously admonished her that there was nothing here she could find for work, and suggested she’d do well to hold onto her job in the north.

These sentiments have been repeated in various forms for me over the last 15 or 20 years – laments over a corrupted, stagnant,  futureless Italy, snared in the bellezza of its past.  It’s population is aging, it requires for menial jobs the many immigrants from Africa, the Philippines, South East Asia and India, though increasingly it becomes hostile to them.  Caught in a cross-fire of contradictions – a sumptuous landscape, cuisine and wine, deep-set corruption, a historically rooted lethargy, paralyzed by its own history – Italy is a place of indefinable sadness where youth are alienated and lost, looking towards a life of endless waiting or looking to escape.  At a casual tourists glance you would never imagine it.  But it is so, as Italians are constantly telling themselves, though if a foreigner says it they will rebuff it with a seizure of cultural unity.   Added July 29 2010]

[For a bit of explication and confirmation of my thoughts, see this article from the NY Times, Aug 1, 2010][

pic steve6xStephen 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.

SWIMMING 26Marjorie 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 FULL nov2 3Swimming 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]

Nathaniel Dorsky, Compline

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.


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.

swimming-7wWhether 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.








swimming-33wWhether 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.

swimming-36wAnd 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.


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