Monday, October 9, 2006

Is There a Northwest Aesthetic? Excerpts From A Panel

Is there a Northwest aesthetic? When I saw this listed as a panel discussion at Local Sightings I thought, what are they going to talk about for an hour, rain? I mean, what could possibly tie such a diverse region together? To my surprise and delight the panel, which consisted of Charles Mudede, Nick Peterson, Sean Kirby, Sean Porter, Megan Griffiths and Peter Lucas, was quite cogent. Over the course of the evening several themes emerged. Whether you agree with them or not [and it would be much more interesting if you didn't] they were quite compelling. Here then are some excerpts:

Geography and Light
Charles: When I first came here I met a local writer, Jonathan Raban, and I asked him what he liked about the Northwest and he said the texture of the light. It slants. It slants sharply. And I looked around and saw he was right. In Africa the light is more direct. And here there is a sharp distinction in the slanting of the light. The way shadows fall, the way rain falls. So, when I met Rob Devor, I hadn't really seen a film that focused on the region's beauty and light quality. There had been great films that had been done here, but I couldn't think of one that did it with muscular intention and that was something I definitely wanted to do.
Sean Kirby: When I first read Police Beat I fell in love with it. And I think part of it was that Charles and Rob were in love with this place in terms of the light and the general mood here. I'm not from here myself. When I first came to Seattle I was taken by the slanting of the light and the almost constant cloud formations. As well as being a town that sits right between two mountain ranges. My first memory was taking the ferry ride from downtown Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula and on the way thinking, I can't believe a city the size of Seattle is in the middle of nature to its strongest degree. That's why I like shooting here so much and why I think it's a powerful place to shoot. Unlike the East Coast where nature is such a small part, the reminder that nature is bigger than us is right there; however you want to look at that, in terms of volcanoes or the size of the mountains or the expanse of the sky. The other thing that struck me about Seattle, and it's always felt to me and it still feels this way, is that it's like a frontier town. Obviously, Seattle is no longer really a frontier town, but it's not that long ago that it was. And with that is the mystery of the unknown. Even in the middle of the city. And when you get out from the city, it's really strong. And so, when I met Rob and we were talking how to shoot Police Beat, it was that love and that awe and that mystery that we wanted to bring to the film as much as possible. One of the ideas we worked with, which I always try to work with a lot, is the idea of the figure in the landscape. From painting and visual art throughout history, the figure in the landscape is the strongest way to make a statement about not just physically where a character is, but psychologically. And nature here is bigger than us.
Sean Porter: I think Northwest writers and directors and cinematographers are all a part of their environment, more so than elsewhere. I think living here you're so taken by the landscape, whether it be the metropolis or the mountains or the desert, that's only a couple of hours away, that you're automatically inspired by it and so naturally write to reflect that. And I think if we were to begin a discussion on whether there is an aesthetic and where it comes from, I think it would start in the writing stage. That informs what Sean Kirby and I do, the blueprint in the script. And I think writers are definitely taken by the space and react to it.
Charles: What really inspired me, what really got me thinking, "I'd love to make a film that looked like that in Seattle," was the X-Files. The early seasons were shot in Vancouver. They were meant to be Washington DC and other parts of America. I loved how the mood was so clearly Northwest. And you looked wherever they were, wherever they were hunting aliens or whatever,AeP it was clearly Vancouver! And I loved that so deeply. I mean, every week I was addicted to the show. The minute they moved to LA I stopped watching it. Then I was exposed to the story and I had to deal with the fact that they were bad stories and the acting was kind of funny. Also Millennium and Dark Angel. All these shows were shot in Vancouver with moody cinematography to try to capture something sad or rotten, this effort to shoot this condition of yearning. So, they would take advantage of the quality of the light, the shadows, the dusk, the trees and if you look at them, particularly the first few seasons of X-Files, you can't feel like you're not watching your own world.
Sean Kirby: I don't feel like I have used previous Hollywood or Independent films shot here for reference. I do respond a lot to European and Asian cinema and I think some of the Russian filmmakers have used things that make sense to me in the Northwest. I've looked at a lot of Tarkovsky and Kieslowski and I think the landscape/environment of Western Russia and Poland have a similar feeling of light. Or, at least, in my mind it relates. The one film I thought was very Northwest in terms of the quality of the light was The Piano. And I know when Rob and I were talking about how to shoot Police Beat Campion's film, at least in terms of the quality of the light and the quality of the colors, made a lot of sense. The other thing that's a Northwest aesthetic is the overall work sensibility. I live in NY now and filmmaking there is so different than filmmaking in Seattle. I see a freeness with the writers and the directors here that I don't see a lot of in NY. Of course, there are exceptions. But in general, there's maybe more space to think in the Northwest.
Summing Up
Peter: We've certainly seen a lot of films that are written as much about place as about inner-conflict and the stories are sort of unresolved in their endings. These kind of endings tend to reference more European films than American ones, especially Hollywood. I wonder if that's a product of the kind of smaller, more secluded scene here. Is not resolving things a reaction to Hollywood or is that something that's part of the storytelling attitude here?
Charles: Okay, there are three things you can always look for when you deal with with cinema here. First, it's going to navigate between the urban and the natural. Lynne Shelton does it in We Go Way Back. It's in June & July. It's also in Police Beat. You get these sudden breaks between urban space and very rural, natural spaces. This sense of movement towards total wilderness from cosmopolitan space. And there's no shock to that. It doesn't surprise the Northwestern viewer to see those transitions, because they're normal here. You can go from concrete to total wilderness in a matter of minutes. The second one is always going to be the light and the texture of the light, the effects that come with it, the mystery, the beauty and all that sort of thing. And the final thing is the sense of reinvention. The reason why stories never end here is because they can't end. The minute anyone enters filmmaking in this part of the world they're in a situation of invention and in a situation of starting and that's the frontier mentality. We still have enough room to be in the inventive stage. In New York City you can have an ending as much as you want. Here it makes no sense to have an ending because everyone would laugh at it. It's such a boldness. Were in an environment where nobody has settled on any ideas. We're given coffee drinking as the ideal activity. So, we react. We react. It's all these desperate stabs in the dark. We're in a situation of invention. And there you have it.

1 comment:

  1. I believe I concur (with the possible science-nerd exception to the idea of slanting light). There are writers who also capture this quality here; Charles D'Ambrosio, Sherman Alexie sometimes, sometimes Charles his own self. The (I just missed it at the Frye this weekend goddammit) mood and air of Streetwise.
    That besodden, grey-lit but somehow transcendant quality is what drew me here. Over the past fifteen years, in my own perception, much of that quality in the public life of Seattle has been effaced. Perhaps I'm simply adopting the viewpoint of a native.