Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Heart in a Vise: Part Two

A Chat with Courtney Hunt (click here for part one)


Although it is days before Christmas, there is no joy here, and as the movie
goes along, its chill begins to seep into your bones. If
Frozen River has all
the ingredients for a weepy Christmas story in the tradition of
It's a Won-
derful Life, it is almost the opposite of that. It is grim reality.
-- Stephen Holden, The New York Times

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Last night, I saw Order of Myths, and you think it's going one way,AeP The black people in town have their Mardi Gras celebration and the white people have theirs, and isn't it terrible that the whites exclude them, and then you realize it's not that simple.


And even though your film isn't a documentary, I see similarities,AePbut my mind is also a little clouded, because I went straight from Trouble the Water to Tulia, Texas to Order of Myths, and it's interesting that everyone's taking a different approach, but your is one of the few films at SIFF that deals with Native Americans, other than The Land of the Headhunters, a 1912 film featuring Washington Natives shot
by photographer Edward S. Curtis. Members of the tribe performed afterwards.


I have little knowledge of the Native culture of the [non-Alaska] Northwest, but
I have seen some of the films that have been made here, and I noticed that Misty
[Upham, who plays Lila, a Mohawk Indian] was also in Skins, which I haven't seen, but I have seen Smoke Signals. I didn't realize she'd done other films. There's a certain freshness to her performance, so you can't really tell. She's good.

[Both films were directed by Portland-born Chris
Eyre; Skins was actually filmed in South Dakota.]

She is good.

It's an effective performance.

She's a natural actress. And what's so funny is that the character
she plays-she is not being herself. She's incredibly funny and does
all kinds of crazy imitations of every possible ethnicity. She kept us-
she's a very funny woman, and her acting is totally-it's a natural thing.

I was wondering if you had to draw a performance out of her.
No, but she was like a one-hit-a one-take-wonder, and then Melissa [Leo] works in a different way, and they'd get to the same place, but usually not at the same time.
Did their different acting backgrounds work to your advantage,
since they're playing people from different worlds in every sense;
not just racially? Although you find out eventually they both have
children. They have similarities that aren't obvious at first.

I just suggested whatever they needed-whatever they were bringing to
the set, it's what we were dealing with. It was funny, though, because every
time we'd do Misty, it would be one-take, and I'd be like, 'I think we got it,
but we'd better do another take, just as a safety,' and Melissa finally said,
'What is going on?!' She and I would work in a more complicated way.
I have to ask the influence question, although I'm not just thinking about your
own work. When you were growing up, were there any films or filmmakers that inspired you, not just in terms of your work, but your life-anything that might
have fed into the person you've become that you saw when you were younger?

Yes. My mother took me to everything. We didn't have a lot of money, so we went
to the movies, and we saw every art house thing that came to the Memphian-that's the name of the theater. And I saw stuff like Paper Moon and The Way We Were,AeP
We're probably from the same generation.
You're hitting on all the stuff I remember.

Yeah, I was a really little girl that probably shouldn't have been out seeing movies like this. I saw Bonnie and Clyde, and then I saw To Kill a Mockingbird-which had been around for awhile-and stuff like that. I remember Sounder, and-oh God, there's a lot of them. And then-how can I say this? I was not a popular teenager. [laughs]
So, you probably watched even more films than you would've otherwise.
In DC, they had another art house, and I could go to these double features, so I would go all the time, and I would see whatever they had, so it would be double-Bergman or double-Fellini or Lina Wertm/oller, so I saw Seven Beauties and Swept Away. And 400 Blows-and, of course, I had to go to film school for somebody to tell me why that was so important. I just knew I'd seen it and that it was memorable.
[In some ways, Hunt's handling of Charlie McDermott's character recalls Antoine Doinel; he's on his own,AePwhile his mom smuggles illegals into the country.]
That's why I was more curious about what you'd seen before
film school, because I think people are taught a canon,AeP

Yes, exactly.
And I'm more interested in your own canon, and I understand exactly
what you're saying. You can see The 400 Blows as a kid and enjoy it,
and then you'll have an adult say, 'Well, what Fran/ssois Truffaut was
doing,AeP,' but you're just with Antoine and you're scared,AeP

If you're like I was as a kid you're not thinking shots,AeP
I'm so not thinking shots in a lot of ways. I'm following the emotion, I'm fol-
lowing the feeling. So yeah, there were those films. There's so many I saw.
Were you already thinking politics when you were younger? Movies like Medium Cool and stuff like that-films with some sort of message. Was that resonating at all?
What was resonating when I was younger was being in Memphis, Tennessee
in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated-kind of a big event. I remember it. I was five, and my mother was devastated, and other members
of my family were not, and I saw that rip, and then she went off to go to law school and to be a hippie,AeP Other members of my family did not, and they're still totally-my parents could not be more different, so I saw this issue from both sides, but
I grew up knowing what was happening in Memphis and that the way black people were treated was not okay. I knew that from the moment I could know anything,
that there was this horrible thing going on right in front of us, and my mom was
like, 'It's not happening to you, but it is not acceptable.' So I had this awareness
and this sensitivity about it from the very beginning, and it was all about race. You know, my mom's very political-she's a criminal defense lawyer-and she had to struggle her way through law school-really struggle, since she's dyslexic-but
she didn't look at it that way. She looked at it as, like, more adventure.
Click here for part three

Frozen River continues at the Harvard Exit (807 E. Roy St.) through 9/4. For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. Images from Sony Classics.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Heart in a Vise: A Chat with Courtney Hunt


People are so jaded at this point by seeing only beautiful, big, toothy smiles.
Even if the characters are dirt-poor and desperate, they're gorgeous. I guess
I'll be struck dead for saying this, but I didn't like
Erin Brockovich. I feel like
we don't have to seduce everybody every moment.

-- Courtney Hunt to New York Magazine

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

When Quentin Tarantino presented Courtney Hunt with the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, he exclaimed, "It took my breath away, and then somewhere around the last hour it put my heart in a vise and proceeded to twist that vise until the last frame." Though I came across this quote just a few days ago, I had the same exact reaction to Frozen River, which I caught earlier this summer.

As I told the writer/director during our interview, conducted at this year's
Seattle International Film Festival, I've rarely had such a visceral reaction
to a motion picture. There are films that make me laugh, films that make
me cry, films that make me think, films that put me to sleep...and then
there's that rare entry that hits me in the solar plexus.

If the filmmaker can maintain that tension, the feeling of tightness
expands until the resolution-if there is one-at which point the knot
ever-so-slowly unravels. Afterwards, I tend to feel drained, as if I've lived
vicariously through the worries and fears of the characters on screen.
Though Hunt has never smuggled foreigners across the US/Canadian border (that I know about), the film plays as if she has. Similarly, Melissa Leo (Homicide, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), who plays a desperate single mother, gives the im-
pression she's acting to save her life, leading to her finest performance to date.
Fortunately, Frozen River isn't a feel-bad film. It can be hard to watch, but Hunt unfurls her narrative so skillfully that looking away isn't an option, even though
one of several terrible things could happen at any minute. Not to give too much away, but it isn't a tragedy; more like a noir with socio-political underpinnings.
It's almost easier to describe what Frozen River isn't than what it is. It
isn't Thelma and Louise on the Rez, and it isn't The Three Burials of the North,
but it does share parallel concerns. Mostly: it's an auspicious debut.
Have you been to Seattle before?
I was here two months ago to work on my film at Alpha Cine [post-production facility]. That was the first time, and I was here for three days. It was great.
You actually got the good weather then. [laughs]
It was really nice. When we flew in, I couldn't believe it.
The first thing I wondered when I looked at your biography,AeP I'm cur-
ious how you made the move from a background in law to filmmaking.

My mom's a lawyer, my husband's a lawyer, and I applied to law school as sort
of a fluke, and I got in. It was a very left-wing law school. I went to Sarah Lawrence for my BA, but I went to Northeastern Law School in Boston, and the great thing about the school is that it allows you to do these co-ops. So, you study for three months, and then you go off and you work for three months, all the way through-the first year, actually. And I got to do all these amazing things, like I worked for
a federal judge, and I worked for criminal defense lawyers, and I worked legal services. And I got to have this wide range of experience. For me-once I realiz-
ed after the first month or two-I mean, I never intended to do this for sure, but I didn't want to go straight to film school, and I felt like, this is interesting, let me take a look. It turned out to be very interesting, and I got to see a whole cross-section of the world I would not have otherwise had access to. It was helpful in that way, and also I'm just kind of goody-goody enough that I would complete things.
I was going to ask about that, because sometimes people
drop out when they realize they want to move in other direc-
tions, but you got the law degree, and then the film degree.

Right, that's how it played out.
Did anyone try to talk you out of moving from law to filmmaking?
No, it was kind of funny. Everybody was like, 'You're going to law school-why?'
That would have been the stranger thing to do.
My mother was like, 'How are you going to,AePokay.' No one was really that much
in favor of it, but it was such a unique law school that it was kind of like,AeP
Not like Harvard Law?
No. Politically, it was a very interesting place to be, and I went straight from college, so I was the youngest person in the class-there was, I think, one girl younger than me-but everyone else had worked at MASSPIRG and all these other things.
So, you were born in Tennessee, but I saw there was something
in your biography about Mississippi. Did you grow up there?

No, but I made a short film that takes place in Vicksburg, MS. I'm from
about 50 miles from there. I'm a Tennessean, but this first movie I made
coming out of Columbia, my thesis film [Althea Faught], was a Civil War
story about a woman who's stranded in the Siege of Vicksburg in 1864.
[Hunt also made a short version of Frozen River,
which played the 2004 New York Film Festival.]
Did you grow up in Tennessee?
I lived in Tennessee until I was about 13.
And then where did you move?
We moved to DC. Then I went to college.
So, you spent your high school years there?
And I spent all my elementary school years in Tennessee.
I was wondering, since you grew up in the South, if that's
why you turned to civil rights law, if that was an influence.

Yeah, my mother had always been a part of that whole movement, so absolutely.
And that's kind of in your film, as well.
Yeah! [laughs] You found the film political, really?
It's not heavy-handed, though. I wouldn't describe it as
political, but that doesn't mean there aren't politics in it.

It's different when a film is heavy-handed and the politics are ob-
vious. I think some people could watch it and not think of it as political.

I have a father who's very conservative and not political-although I don't
believe that's possible-and a mother who's very left-wing and very political,
and in a way I probably made it so he would watch it and see a good story.
And see people-characters.
And an arc and stakes and an adventure-and to please her, I probably,AeP So it hit different things I was exposed to growing up, like single motherhood and racism.
Click here for part two
Frozen River, which opened in Seattle on 8/22, continues at the Harvard
Exit (807 E. Roy St.) through 9/4. For more information, please click
or call 206-781-5755. Images from E! Online and Sony Classics.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Self-Portrait in a Shattered Lens

A Film in 12
Scenes /
Film en
Douze Tab-
leaux (Jean-
Luc Godard,
France, 1962,
85 minutes)

Godard spent
entire films
sending sem-
aphore-like messages about the corruption of Western consumer society, but My
Life to Live
communicates more, and without a single quote from Chairman Mao.

-- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ****** *****

When people say they like Jean-Luc Godard's 1960s work, what
they usually mean is that they like Godard in conjunction with An-
na Karina
and D.P. Raoul Coutard. To be fair, they may also be
thinking about Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, Pierrot le Fou)
or Jean-Pierre Léaud (Masculin Féminin, La Chinoise), but Vivre
Sa Vie
belongs as much to Karina as to Godard. If not more so.

Though Karina still had a career after her personal and profession-
al break from the filmmaker--they married after 1961's A Woman
Is a Woman
and divorced during 1965's Pierrot le Fou--she never
hit the same heights again, though the one-time model did go on to
work with such major talents as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Serge
Gainsbourg, Jacques Rivette, Agnès Varda, and Luchino Visconti.

Arguably, Godard
peaked during the
same period, 19-
61-1967, in which
they made eight
films together.
That isn't to dis-
miss his work with
other actresses in
the decades to
come, but it's the
'60s, i.e. the Kari-
na Era, that secur-
ed his reputation.

In Godard biographer Richard Brody's essay "Self-Portrait
in a Shattered Lens," which accompanies the Criterion Collec-
tion DVD, he writes, "Pierrot Le Fou was an angry accusa-
tion against Anna Karina, and a self-pitying keen at how she
destroyed him and his work." I couldn't say whether Godard
signs off on that reading, but Karina offers nothing but praise
when she speaks about her former spouse in interviews.

Luc Lagier's revealing 2007 documentary Godard, L'Amour,
La Poesie
also comes with the Pierrot DVD. In it, Karina ex-
plains, "I can't speak badly of him! He was my teacher, my
love, my husband, my Pygmalion. He taught me everything."

Though Pierrot le Fou ends in death and destruction,
Vivre Sa Vie
is a more somber affair (further, Coutard
shot it in black and white rather than Technicolor). Godard
disorients the audience from the start with backlit close-ups
of Karina before revealing anything about her character. Af-
ter the credit sequence, Nana (Karina) parts from her hus-
band, Paul (Andre Labarthe), and by extension, their child.

Godard keeps the Brechtian distance going by shooting the
scene from the back, but the eeriest part is that they speak
to each other as director and actress (or father and daught-
er). Paul accuses her of "parroting" everything he says, while
Nana claims he never lets her speak for herself. Though it's
rarely wise to read too much biography into a fiction film,
Godard isn't exactly playing his cards close to his chest.

As it turns out, Nana would prefer to act, but works instead in a
record store. Deeply in debt, she loses her apartment, but doesn't
tell Paul or ask to borrow any money. Instead, she drowns her sor-
rows in a screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jean-
ne d'Arc
, during which a man puts his arm around her shoulder. He
bought her ticket, so she accepts the gesture, but refuses to allow
him to go home with her. She has her standards, but as her situ-
ation becomes more precarious, they melt away. (Interestingly,
French-Canadian helmer Léa Pool uses Vivre Sa Vie in 1999's
Emporte-moi / Set Me Free, much as Godard uses Jeanne.)

One afternoon,
while walking
down a Parisian
boulevard fre-
quented by
another man
asks Nana,
"How about it?"
Pause. "Oui,"
she responds
quietly, and a
prostitute is
born. (Pool's
underage pro-
tagonist tries the same thing, but is prevented from taking the plunge.)

Godard, by way of Coutard, continues to alternate between back shots,
fade-to-blacks, and close-ups in which Karina stares into the camera-
like Maria Falconetti in the Dreyer film or Jean Seberg in Breathless.

Later, another trick accuses Nana of "parroting," which brings up an in-
teresting point. Though sometimes accused of misogyny (most recently
by Richard Brody), Godard takes this parade of judgmental men to task.

If Nana isn't a heroine on the order of Joan of Arc, he's still in her corn-
er. No wonder Susan Sontag loved this film. Whether it qualifies as
feminist or not is open to debate, but I submit that it's not misogynist.

Further, many critics be-
lieve Karina gives her best
performance in Vivre Sa
I haven't seen enough
of her post-Godard work to
say for sure, but it's the best
of the films I've seen, and
she was never a slouch in
the acting department.

It's worth adding that the
Denmark-born Hanne Kar-
en Blarke Bayer was never
a slouch in the singing or
dancing departments either.
She doesn't sing here as she
does in Pierrot le Fou, but
she does dance to a jukebox,
anticipating 1964's Bande à
Part (Band of Outsiders).

So, Vivre Sa Vie isn't a total downer (Michel Legrand's subtle score,
which plays only during the chapter headings, adds some welcome re-
lief). A melodrama dressed in new wave garb, the film proves Godard
had a soft side. Karina would continue to bring that softness to the sil-
ver screen, while her ex-husband and greatest director would suc-
cumb to the coldness that always attached itself to his work.

Endnote: Part of the retrospective "Godard's '60s," Vivre Sa Vie,
in a new 35mm print, plays SIFF Cinema through 8/28. (Incidentally, I
suspect Fatih Akin used its structure as a model for the discrete scenes
in The Edge of Heaven, which continues at The Varsity.) SIFF Cinema is
located at 321 Mercer St. in McCaw Hall. For more information, please
click here or call 206-633-7151. Images from Roger Ebert and OutNow!

Friday, August 15, 2008

For the Price of One: Part Four

A Chat with Mark and Jay Duplass (click here for part three)


The only reason to go to a studio is if you need the studio to make the
movie. And we discovered we didn't need anyone else to make this movie.

-- Mark Duplass to The Austin Chronicle

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Steve: I'm not gonna phrase this question very well, but perhaps you'll under-
stand what I'm asking. It's about this division between indie and professional or indie and Hollywood-I don't want to use pejorative terms-but your film seems to me very much indie in spirit, but using a kind of professional attitude; you were trying to make something that looked pretty good. Have you noticed an increas-
ing tendency to do that, a halfway house: indie budget, professional attitude?

Mark: I know what you're saying. In the past, it's mostly been like one raw indie movie, and then, boom, they're on to the studio system, and we've made three so far. It is a little strange that we've stayed a long ways down here, but the technology is really good now. You can make stuff that looks good, and gets out into the world.

The look of fear

Jay: Plus the documentary ethic fits with the stories we're trying to tell, and shooting a perfectly polished film about non-actors with some stars is not gonna cut it. Also, within the ethic of our filmmaking, we definitely like to employ solid storytelling techniques, but we like to execute them loosely and to try to incorporate as much...

Mark: It's basically like dressing in thrift store clothes. It takes a lot of time and energy and effort to make that outfit look like you just woke up and threw it on.

Jay: We're trying to retain that ethic in the studio system, actually; to try and convince them to allow us to continue to shoot stuff that we want to shoot.

Mark: And they'll listen to us, but basically, if Baghead makes a lot of money, we
get to do whatever we want, and if it doesn't, then we're gonna continue to make these movies until they do make money, and then hopefully, we'll be able to do what we can do, because that's what, at the end of the day, talks to them.

Kathy: You mention that in the Austin Chronicle piece, and you aren't the
only filmmakers to cite John Sayles [as a model]. I hope people continue
to look to him. As the years go on, some people might stop looking in
his direction, and yet he's managed to do what you're talking about.
[Sayles divides his time between studio work and personal projects.]

Mark: He has.

Kathy: And I know he's working on another Jurassic Park,
and that allows him to keep doing things his own way.

Mark: He's awesome.

Kathy: I hope he can continue, because it's getting a little harder for people
at his level-I mean, not getting the studio work, but doing his own thing.

Mark: Do you think it's because he's getting older and he needs more comfort,
like maybe he's not so willing to make a movie as cheaply as Jay and I would?

Kathy: Yeah, I do, actually, because Honeydripper [his latest film]
was really ambitious, and maybe he does need to scale down a bit.

Sayles on the set of Lone Star

Mark: We've been very conscious about creating movies that work on our budget scale. We would never shoot them for the studio system at this level. And even our last movie, which we shot in April, could've used a bigger budget. We jammed it a
bit into the low-budget box, and the movie won't suffer, but we suffered. [laughs]

Jay: We've already experienced a bit of like-we've padded each successive
film. We've definitely had some moments where we're looking at each other like, 'We need some help.' It's outrageous what a pinch we've put ourselves into.

Kathy: It keeps you on your toes.

Mark: It keeps the vitality.

Jay: The line you're riding is the vitality and energy of-everybody
has so much to do, and they're thriving and being creative. The other
side of it is: are you limiting the quality of this movie by just...

Mark: And are you also headed towards burn-out? Are you wasting certain
kinds of energy you could be saving so you can have a nice, long filmmak-
ing career as opposed to, 'These guys put out five amazing movies in
five years and then they moved to an uninhabited island in Hawaii.'

Steve: Speaking of burn-out, you're mixing and matching your career
with acting parts and directing, but how are you going to keep that fresh-
ness and vitality? This is obviously a very fresh movie, partly because of
the fact that you didn't have much money, so everyone's a little on edge.
Do you have any techniques, i.e. gimmicks, or ways of avoiding this?

Jay: Honestly, Mark and I, our philosophy has always been to keep it really
simple, and the question we continually ask ourselves, not only within an entire
film, but from scene to scene, moment to moment is, 'What do you want to see next?' And to not get caught up in grandiose ideas or anything like that. We just
try and keep it fresh as we go. If we're in a scene and it's not working, we bail, and we say, 'That didn't work. We're not doing it, and we're not moving on until we fig-
ure out what's gonna be great and what's gonna be new and special, and what's gonna excite us.' And we've just got to go through it on a microscopic level every day, and just try to keep it fresh and just try to stay in the moment as we work.

Mark: The key word is 'try.'

Steve: Would you ever retreat to a cabin in the woods?

Jay: Probably not [laughs]

Steve: What's the worst that could happen?

Kathy: A baghead!

Jay: Maybe a hotel room at the airport where no one can get to us.
Mark: As long as they have pay-per-view and hamburgers, we're good.

Click here for part five

The look of love

Baghead is currently playing in New York and LA. There are no more Seat-
tle screenings (and a DVD release date hasn't been announced yet). For
more information, please see the official website. Images from OutNow!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mock Up On Mu & Craig Baldwin @ The NWFF


As an ex-Seattle person, I forgot to mention that Craig Baldwin will be appearing at two screenings of Mock Up On Mu , Friday and Saturday at the NWFF. Both screenings are at 8pm.

In addition, Baldwin will be hosting Flix Remix: A Found Footage Workshop Saturday, from 1:00-4:30pm. The class is described thusly:

Put your hands on celluloid and experience found footage filmmaking, the ultimate form of "green" production! Drawing on his vast experience as a found footage guru, Craig Baldwin will discuss the genre's influence on alternative cinema, screening clips from his found footage classics, TRIBULATION 99, SONIC OUTLAWS and other works. The creative and critical methods of working with archival film prints will be demonstrated through hands-on activities. Using projectors, rewinds, viewers, splicers and an optical-sound reader, participants will compose "re-purposed" cine-poems, with either the extant soundtrack(s), or set against some other audio source (bring your own CD). Uncanny, even anomalous 16mm industrial film stock provided. No experience required, just a willingness to experiment.

Further info on the screenings and the workshop can be found at Third Eye Cinema.

Mock Up On Mu & Craig Baldwin @ The NWFF


As an ex-Seattle person, I forgot to mention that Craig Baldwin will be appearing at two screenings of Mock Up On Mu , Friday and Saturday at the NWFF. Both screenings are at 8pm.

In addition, Baldwin will be hosting Flix Remix: A Found Footage Workshop Saturday, from 1:00-4:30pm. The class is described thusly:

Put your hands on celluloid and experience found footage filmmaking, the ultimate form of "green" production! Drawing on his vast experience as a found footage guru, Craig Baldwin will discuss the genre's influence on alternative cinema, screening clips from his found footage classics, TRIBULATION 99, SONIC OUTLAWS and other works. The creative and critical methods of working with archival film prints will be demonstrated through hands-on activities. Using projectors, rewinds, viewers, splicers and an optical-sound reader, participants will compose "re-purposed" cine-poems, with either the extant soundtrack(s), or set against some other audio source (bring your own CD). Uncanny, even anomalous 16mm industrial film stock provided. No experience required, just a willingness to experiment.

Further info on the screenings and the workshop can be found at Third Eye Cinema.

Mock Up On Mu - A Fragment of An Interview With Craig Baldwin


I'm telling you now, this was a crazy interview. I was scheduled to meet Craig Baldwin on the evening of July 16th at his basement studio. That afternoon I got socked with a rush project and wound up having to push back the interview by several hours. Hammering out the assignment, I flew out of the office and hit the Montgomery St. BART to The Mission.

Baldwin's studio is located on Valencia St., in the basement of Other Cinema, a former bakery that serves as his workshop, his home (which he shares with several other artists) and as a theater, which hosts a number of screenings by a number of film societies; one of which, The Revival House Classic Queer Cinema, was showing two Fred Halsted flicks, LA. Plays Itself and Sex Garage, that evening.

Greeted by Baldwin at the door I was whisked, through throngs of filmgoers, down to his lair. On route, we passed through the kitchen where several people, hunched over a table, were eating dinner. Baldwin asked if I would like something to eat and drink, whereupon he grabbed a Bud from the fridge and snatched an ear of corn off someone's plate.

As I gnawed my supper, Baldwin gave me a tour of his studio, a warren of rooms, jammed with films, videocassettes, books, editing equipment and all manner of ephemera and weirdness. The heart of his operation is a storage space stacked with several hundred [or is it thousand?] cans of vintage educational, instructional, industrial and documentary films, all organized in piles by the Dewey decimel system. This collection, which he refers to as the 'paradigm of all possible shots' serves as the pool from which he draws material for his found footage documentaries; free-flowing assemblages whose editorial methodology brings to mind this scene from Ed Wood.
Ed continues across the lot, carrying his palm tree. An OLD CRUSTY MAN sticks his head out an office window.
OLD CRUSTY MAN: Hey, Eddie! Come in here. I got some great new stuff to show you.
Ed puts down the plant again and runs in.
The old guy is proudly showing Ed STOCK FOOTAGE on a moviola. The footage is totally random: Giant explosions, buffalos stampeding, tanks, an octopus swimming, etc. Ed is dazzled.
ED: This is fantastic! What are you gonna do with it all?
OLD CRUSTY MAN: Eh, probably file it away and never see it again.
ED: It's such a waste. If I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie out of this stock footage! (getting inspired) See, the story opens with these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what's causing them, but it's upsetting all the buffalo. So the military is called in to solve the mystery.
OLD CRUSTY MAN: Ya forgot the octopus.
ED: No, I'm saving that for the big underwater climax!

Baldwin's films have explored post-war colonialism in Zaire [RocketKitKongoKit], Spanish colonialism in the Southwest [-*O No Coronado! ], the audio collective Negativland [Sonic Outlaws] and just plain incredibly strange shit [Tribulation 99 and Spectres of The Spectrum]. His latest opus, Mock Up On Mu is, in the words of Erik Davis, a
"Madcap hyper-meditation on magick and mind control that takes place in a hallucinogenic California spliced together, literally, from B-movies, self help infomercials, UFO cable access shows and aerospace promo films."

Although not present in the film, Davis himself is an influence on it. The author of "The Visionary State", a survey of the varieties of religious experience in California, Davis is fascinated by the intersection of technology, industry, entertainment and spiritualism in the Golden State. Again, quoting Davis, Mock Up on Mu riffs fictitiously on,
"...one of the core narratives of the California spiritual underground: the almost operatic tale of JPL rocket scientist Jack Parsons. A handsome and hedonistic occultist, Parsons performed Crowleyian rituals with L. Ron Hubbard before the latter stole his girlfriend and crafted Dianetics. During his tenure as head of an OTO lodge in Pasadena in the late 1940's, Parsons also hooked up with the mysterious [Marjorie] Cameron, a redheaded witch who went on, after Parsons's mysterious death in a garage explosion, to nurture LA's young Beat artists in the ways of the wyrd. Cameron upstaged Ana/Os Nin in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome and appeared briefly, but with enormous spookiness, in Curtis Harrington's Night Tide, arguably the first 'independent' Hollywood film.... Baldwin blends live action with his celluloid patchworks.... with actors playing - with varying degrees of success - freely"nvented versions of Parsons, Hubbard, Cameron..., as well as a craven aerospace defense contractor named Lockheed Martin, played with slithering conviction by activist/actor Stoney Burke. As a dedicated scrambler of fact and fiction, Baldwin makes no attempt to retell the actual history of Parsons, but instead weaves a SciFi plot that features a moon-based Hubbard sending Cameron on a mission to seduce Parsons and Martin. The resulting combo of live action and assemblage creates what Baldwin calls a 'collage narrative,' a phrase he admits is oxymoronic, or 'possibly just moronic.'"

Over the course of an hour or so, Baldwin discussed a number of topics pertaining to Mu. Unfortunately, due to a mechanical malfunction, 2/3 of the interview tape became unusable [I am never using an analog recorder again]. Fortunately, Baldwin is a voluminous talker. Conversing with him is like trying to have a conversation with Dick Vitale, Dick Shawn and Handsome Dick Manitoba, all at the same time. So, as unfortunate as it is that our free-flowing discussion of Kenneth Anger, Situationism and Los Angeles is lost to the ether, there is plenty left to savor.
CB: Rick Prelinger's got these early medical films, most are silent. We're having this fantastic band playing live to it. That's a very risky show, but it will sell out. Take my word for it. You should come around for it.
ESF: I will.
CB: There's a huge meteor, though, that's hurtling towards earth right now, that's going to explode, so you and I probably won't be around.
ESF: What's the due date on that?
CB: [Laughs] There's nothing you can do about it, brother.
ESF: I have a chicken-and-egg question. Do you look at the footage and construct the story from it or do you have the story and search for the footage to illustrate it? Or do you do both?
CB: It's a great question. If I was in your position, I'd ask the same question of you. In other words, it's a central question about process. It's more like this, both. In other words, I'm not going to make it easy and just say it's all driven by picture. I would like to have it driven by the visual, because I see myself more as a visual artist, a collagist, rather than a biographer or even a writer, even though there's a lot of writing in it; but it would be impossible to make a film, feature length, that long, about so many complex issues that are abstract. In other words, you can't always depict an idea through visuals, so you need language. There's a set of ideas, facts, anecdotes and stories that have to be told and then over here, a set of what I call the pool, the paradigm of all possible shots and they have to meet and where they meet, ultimately, is the membrane of the film; but there's five years of processing in-between, where you've got to break down your shots into categories. So, basically, I have to make decisions throughout the course of the narrative in order to guide my search through that archive. So, it's a little bit different from most biopics. Especially ones that are shot and not made out of found footage, in which you divide up the story in such-and-such a way, a scene at the beach, a scene in the mountains, so on and so forth and that would drive your production; but that is a tradition within the mainstream commercial cinema and is not one I follow or have the money to indulge. What I do is, take story ideas, they may be gestural. In other words, someone has sex or has an auto accident, whatever it is or they may be ideas in terms of books or philosophy or something like that. Then they accumulate into categories and I can organize the shots according to them. It could be something basic like 'beach' or 'forest' or 'mountain'. So, it's an outline like this [gestures to a board with an Other Cinema schedule listed in black marker]. The film looked like this for a long time before there was actually a script. The script came after the montage. Like this thing [gesturing to board]. There would be big written words and abbreviations on a big card with a lot of notes attached "Now I must go to," "Now I must go to" and soon or later broken down into thirteen chapters. So then I knew that this was 'the brainwashing scene' and this was 'the rocket scene' and this was 'the moon scene' and the material came into those categories. So, it's constantly this analysis of breaking down, breaking down, breaking down the story. It's complex, fitting five characters into these categories like the Dewey decimel system and to think you can actually get your head around it, because there's too many things going on in that piece of American sub-cultural history in post-war LA. There's too much going on. So by breaking it down into these sections, I could throw the films on the flatbed and build these rolls, then take them to the transfer place to have them digitized and then I'm looking at them a lot more easily. You're locked down to speed on the flatbed, but once you've got it digitized things become easier. So it was a big hassle, but then you can really move the stuff around quickly. So when you have a shot, you say, 'Oh, that's a shot of the beach and there's something up here, a bird is dead' and then you go 'ah' and then maybe that has enough presence to fold itself into your montage. So in that way the visual is making contributions to the course of your narrative. I call it a slalom. In my case, it's not a straight shot. It's like going downhill. If you go with the flow of the images, a good piece of music or a beautiful shot, then I'll say 'Well forget L. Ron Hubbard' and then go with the shot and it has its own presence like a Conner or a Dada film. So that's why it's a dialogue between the image banks and the set of ideas.
Baldwin breaks off and fetches a stack of books and magazines, which he dumps at my feet.
CB: This is what really started the whole thing off. "Sex and Rockets" by John Carter. Two years later there was "Strange Angel" by George Pendle, an even better book, and then there was this magazine article on Marjorie Cameron, a year later. This guy Pendle, probably younger than me, had the same light bulb go off in his head at the same time mine did. He's from the UK. So, all he had to do was get the facts and write them down. What I had to do was not only do that, but then add picture and sound. Then here again, this is typical [indicates a recent magazine article on Parsons]. This is current. I mean that's just not an accident, that's not just coincidence. This is very much happening right now, in the air. This is happening with tinkerers, do"t-yourself rocketry, backyard gadgetry, gimmickry. This was the also the whole thing about Erik Davis's "Visionary State", about making your own religion, which is what Hubbard did.


ESF: That brings me to another subject. I now live in California, a place I've visited before and almost moved to when I was 11 or 12, when my father was offered a job at UC Santa Barbara.
CB: I used to go to school there!
ESF: He was offered a position in their anthropology department.
CB: Cool. Is that what your father does, teach anthropology?
ESF: He passed away a number of years ago, but he was an anthropologist at Columbia and my godfather, who also passed away, was an anthropologist at UCSB. He tried to get my dad to work there but, ultimately, he didn't want to leave NY. So, I came close to spending my adolescence in Southern California.
CB: Ah!
ESF: So now I'm living here and I want to ask you, as a native Californian, do you think there's such a thing as a California film?
CB: Sure. There's no doubt about it. There's a San Francisco film too. There's a Santa Barbara film. That's what I'm into right now, localization. Bringing it back. I think there's too much overgeneralization about history. The West is much different from the East. You know what I mean? Not to say I'm disavowing their history. I'm just saying it's less useful to someone living here and, after a while, you see a lot is completely vested in the values of the East, what I call the Atlantic and that's fine, but it's more about Britain than it is about California. California is more about Mexico, Japan, China, the Indians, outdoors, than it is about Alexander Hamilton. Not to put that down!
ESF: [Laughs]
CB: What do they do there? They have re-enactments. That blows my mind. Re-enacting the Civil War. I say, 'Oh, that's fantastic,' but my film is a kind of re-enactment of something of crucial historical importance that happened 100 years later, which is much more relevant to us now. So, that's my clarion call for regional history, sub-cultural history. Not to disavow the official story. I'm saying it's one of many. So what I want to do tell a story that would otherwise be totally marginalized. Give it the same weight as the Battle of Gettysburg.
ESF: But do you feel you can point to something and say there's a California film or a California aesthetic? It's funny, because you don't really think of it. You think of Hollywood and most of the big films are made there.
CB: Those are global.
ESF: But is there a thing apart from that as California film?
CB: Yeah, Pat O'Neill, James Benning. Both of those guys. They were at CalArts, a school started by Disney, by the way. But it's not for me to beat on my chest and say this-and-that. That's essentialist. What I'm saying is that the idea of a global, overarching American style is ridiculous. It's about time it's deconstructed and analyzed, by region or by generation, but California is an easy one. The Halsted films you would be seeing upstairs. It's very Cali. Less about proscenium arch narrative, psychological drama and more about the sensual aesthetic and gesture. And there's The West Coast Optical School, which was theorized by David Curtis in a very famous book. The West Coast Optical School has more to do with graphics and a flattening of space. And again, is a way to cut away from the Ibsen style of staging. It's more about free flowing camera movement, sunlight, open vistas, depth, nature, people outdoors, sex, humor, all those things. Certainly montage. In the case of San Francisco, it's a lot about collage filmmaking. Also, Wallace Berman. There's all sorts of shows about Wallace Berman now and those guys. They came up, because they were busted in LA at the Ferus Gallery. In fact, there's a new documentary on the Ferus Gallery called The Cool School. So, American art isn't just Norman Rockwell. We didn't even mature as a national culture until maybe the 40's or 50's, the post-war period and Beat art comes out of that, as a sui-generis idiosyncratic self-sustaining component within American art that's not to be completely folded in or whitewashed with all the other stupid older ideas. So when Berman was busted down at the Ferus Gallery those guys came up here and became part of the San Francisco Renaissance. Bruce Conner was making Assemblage, collages, what I call typically San Francisco or West Coast or NorCal stuff. Junk sculpture. That's not the only kind of work that's made here, but when you see something like Conner or Robert Nelson, Chick Strand even, you can say here are some of the characteristics of a particular movement. Call it Neo-Dada or Funk art or Assemblage, which was across the arts in sculpture, painting and drawing. So, I wouldn't go so far as to say there's a California style of film, that would be too broad, but I will say we can talk about characteristics of this or that. There are California film characteristics.
ESF: David Lynch has said his perspective was fundamentally altered by moving from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The first thing that struck him was that the light and sense of physical space were different. So, wouldn't the environment of California be an influence?
CB: It's a good question. I'm really not one to answer it. I've shot some exteriors, but I'm mostly focused on,AePI can hardly compare to those guys. It's a big deal to shoot outside. I can do it, but it's not my focus. My focus is more about playing between images. It's less about physical space and more about conceptual space, but it's true. That's what I meant earlier when I said outdoors or nature. Very typical. Again, James Broughton who, by the way, wound up in Port Townsend, shooting nude boy or girl scenes outdoors. You wouldn't have to guess, well that's kind of a San Francisco look. Again, it's preposterous, let's put a nude in an exterior, but in fact it's kind of typical, it's kind of authentic. So yes, in that case, placing your story outside, I would say, is typical. Even the Westerns, of course, another great example. So it's true, Lynch or whoever can go out and the sense of space, especially in the Southwest, is very important. You know, I love it, but for me it's like a ready-made set. I don't think of it as nature. I think of it as a ready-made set. There's no doubt about it, but I'm not the person to talk about quality of light.
ESF: Do you feel directly or indirectly impacted by your environment?

I spend twenty out of twenty four hours right here.
ESF: [Laughs]
CB: You don't need my example. I'm a wretched little studio rat, but I spent a lot of time hopping freights and hitchhiking, so I know all about the West and I've come up under that. Not that you need to know that, but in terms of my own development as an individual I cherish the freedom you typically have in the West, but I can't say that there's too much of a direct connection with whatever landscapes I had in my films.
A man resembling J Mascis comes down the stairs.
CB: Don't let this guy bother you.
SP: Hi Craig.
CB: Steven Fried, Steve Polta.
ESF: Steven, nice to meet you.
SP: Steven, nice to meet you.
CB: He's actually the creative director of the San Francisco Cinematheque.
SP: Have we met before?
ESF: No, I just moved here.
CB: No, he's a journalist working with the ex-Seattle people.

The ex-Seattle people?
ESF: Well, I'm an ex-Seattle person.
SP: I thought that was an organization. There used to be this thing called 'Ex from Chicago'. I thought it was something like that.
CB: No, no, he's ex-Seattle. Don't worry about it. We're in an interview right now, baby.
SP: You're the one who started talking,AeP
CB: Anyway, like I say, I think it's good question. People who are in a different register in film would be better equipped to answer it, but my thing isn't trying to assess the quality of the light. I don't have that kind of indulgence. I shoot what I can. It's totally punk rock, run and gun. If you get lucky and the light is there, we get the shot. We generally use the first one, that doesn't sound good, but that's just the way it is. There's more desperation when you're out there. It's very hard. We made the film for nothing. We were all just sleeping in a big van. So, I'm not going to rhapsodize. It goes without saying, it's already implicit in our consciousness.
ESF: The film is about notable people, but in casting, you put several people in the film who themselves are known in a sort of way. For instance, Damon Packard, who is a larger-than-life character.
CB: I'll say.
ESF: Or Kal Spelletich, who is known for his work with SRL and might be remembered from Slacker.
CB: Well, there you go. Slacker is a good reference, muy bien. That's like the other axis of the whole Southwest thing. Austin, San Francisco. Yeah, there's a little Slacker vibe in there, that's for sure. The point is, anything I would say would make the film look even more amateurish, but it's more of an underground movie. By that, I mean, in the good sense and the bad sense. It's not a professional movie, it's a movie made out of passion. It's a movie that won't make any money, that will only reach an audience of those people who are interested in these things, which is a big audience by the way. But the thing is, I was able to make the movie, by any means necessary. In other words, by those resources which were available to me, which included shooting in my own studio, cutting up my film collection and shooting with my friends and that's the Jack Smith or the Andy Warhol thing, to get someone who isn't a professional actor. Couldn't pay them anyway. I mean, I did pay my actors, but not SAG rates and again, get in a van and drive four days down into the desert in Arizona. It's not like you could put somebody up in a trailer. I couldn't, so it's not a bad thing. What I'm saying is that it's the nature of certain level of filmmaking to get those people around you, who share a value with you and get them in your movies. So, Kal's a friend of mine. He has a good look, he plays the part. He's like a modern day Jack Parsons. So I could get Kal to do this, to show up at 10:00 o'clock at night and drive around in a circle in West Oakland. Damon was really more of a self-conscious decision. Damon as Hubbard was, well,AeP I got lucky, let's face it. Damon's a little bit of an exhibitionist. I knew we were on the same wavelength. I said, 'You be my Hubbard and I'll make you look like a star.' I mean he's in his own movies and I love his stuff, so it was a good fit.
ESF: Reflections of Evil. A lot of people refer to is as a great LA movie.
CB: There you go. A lot of people in the straight business didn't want it, they hate it, but it's a really an authentic LA movie from the street level. To me it's more the other side of LA. You see so much of the downtown area, that's my favorite part of LA. Just so you know, right down there they built REDCAT, a big theater. Frank Gehry designed the building and this film is going to open there in LA along with Damon's Space Disco One, I don't know if you've seen it.
ESF: No, I haven't.
CB: We're distributing it very soon on our Other Cinema label. It's a 45 minute thing, but Reflections is an important film. He distributed Reflections by throwing it onto people's front porches. So, that's Damon, he's a complete wild-man.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

For the Price of One: Part Three

A Chat with Mark and Jay Duplass (click here for part two)


What do you guys think is the key to making
a successful creative brother team?

Mark Duplass: Therapy.

(Courtesy Movie Web)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Steve: The next question isn't about the film itself, but one of the overriding
themes is the shit things people do even to their friends to make a movie.

Mark: Desperate people.

Steve: Yeah, desperate people. Is there anything at all in your
past lives you could relate to there, or was it a total fiction?

Mark: Well, we've definitely experienced, in traveling to film fes-
tivals, the lives of desperate filmmakers and desperate actors.
It's one of the hardest things in the world to make a success.

Jay: People are generally dedicating every ounce of their energies and ab-
ilities to accomplishing that one thing, and a lot gets damaged. I mean, Mark
and I are more-we mostly just damage ourselves. [laughs] I don't think we real-
ly-it's more interpersonal dynamics or emotional damage. We're used to it.

Kathy: And you make movies about that, so it all works out in the end. [laughs]

Mark: And we did. We want to explore that.

Robert Rodriguez shooting El Mariachi

Steve: So far, what's the shittiest thing you've done to get a movie produced?

Kathy: And keep in mind you've got that Texas precedent, like Robert
Rodriguez with those cholesterol studies. That's a great example.

[Rodriguez became a human guinea pig to fund El Mariachi.]

Mark: Exactly [laughs] That was pretty extreme: Pharmaco.

Steve: You can say, 'We would never do such a thing,' and we'll take that.

Mark: No, we definitely would! [laughs]

Kathy: He made a movie on his own terms, so...

Jay: We would absolutely do it.

Steve to Mark: That's a good attitude. I want to ask you specifically about Humpday. You'll be working with a local filmmaker. Are you coming back to make that?

Mark: Yeah, I'll be here in a couple of weeks.

Kathy: Apparently, she [Lynn Shelton] didn't know you were coming to town for SIFF.

Mark: We didn't even know we were coming until about four days ago.

Steve: We look forward to seeing you again. How did you think
the Seattle audience responded to your film last night?

Jay: They totally got it, and that's why we're opening the
film in Austin and Portland and Seattle before New York.

Kathy: I read The New York Times article, and they made a
really big deal about that. It doesn't seem that weird to me.

Jay: It doesn't seem that weird to us either.

Kathy: It just makes sense.

Mark: Those are the cities that got our movie.

Jay: Everyone last night got it. They knew exactly what we
were going for, and that's what our strategy is all about.

Kathy: Seattle loved The Puffy Chair.

Jay: That's why we wanted to preview it here, to give the movie some
time to get its legs and up on its feet and to be appreciated before-
so it doesn't have to perform perfectly that first weekend in LA.

Mark: It's definitely a case of: why not open the
movie in a place where they love the movies.

Kathy: Isn't that a little scary, too, though? I thought, 'What if I
don't like the film?' Fortunately, I felt relieved while watching it.

Jay: We were definitely worried. I mean, we knew we were tackling
something pretty different with this film than The Puffy Chair, and that's
a big risk in terms of your sophomore effort. All eyes are on you.

Kathy: And then you get The Strangers-a guy with a bag on his head.

Mark: Even on paper, Baghead looked very different from The Puffy Chair. We found out on set we're kind of hopelessly and helplessly ourselves, and what we're inter-
ested in and where we're always gonna turn the camera on, at the end of the day, is these faces and what these people are doing to each other. It's always gonna be personal. I mean, if we literally went out and made a full-on animated science fiction film, it would still feature someone getting their feelings hurt. It's just what we like.

Click here for part four


Baghead opens at The Varsity on Friday, 8/8. Images from The Cornell Chronicle (Rodriguez directs Carlos Gallardo), MovieFreak.com (Baghead still), and Movie Web (Mark and Jay with the same set of bowls I own...well, not the same exact set).

Friday, August 1, 2008

For the Price of One: Part Two

A Chat with Mark and Jay Duplass (click here for part one)

At the Egyptian with SIFF's Carl Spence

Kathy to Mark: I know you did Hannah Takes the Stairs with Greta [Ger-
wig], and I'm curious if you knew the other actors in the film? I'm gues-
sing you did. Were they friends or acquaintances? Did they audition?

Jay: We went to high school with Steve [Zissis], and we think he's the most
amazing actor ever. We want to show the rest of the world. That's how we feel
about all our friends that we put in our movies, but Mark had worked with Greta,
and she was amazing, and Ross is a great friend of ours. The only part we had
to cast was for Catherine, and we did a casting session for Elise [Muller].

Mark and Greta in Hannah Takes the Stairs

Mark: That's the first time we actually had to do
a casting session to find one of the main roles.

Jay: We normally have to do casting sessions for the supporting roles.

Mark: The small roles.

Steve: Is that a step towards the big time, actually cast-
ing a part; one of the next steps to judge your progress?

Mark: Yeah, I guess so. [laughs]

Kathy: Was Jett [the director in the film] also a friend of yours?

Mark: Jett [Garner] is a friend. He was in our acting class at Austin.

Kathy: I was wondering about that, so I looked him up on the IMDb, and he just
has acting credits, including some big projects. He's not a director in real life?

Jay: He isn't.

Steve to Mark: That actually brings me to a point. For you, we hear
locally that you're going to be in Lynn Shelton's next film. We're going
to come back to your Seattle connection in a minute, but the ques-
tion is: have you decided whether you're an actor or a director yet?

Mark: Yeah, exactly. Who's got the most money? [laughs] I think I'll
probably spend most of my time writing and directing movies, because
the lifestyle of an auditioning actor is fairly painful, but there are friends
of mine who want to make movies and things like that, and if I'm act-
ing in those, I don't have to prostrate my soul to a casting director.
[Mark returned to Seattle in July to work on Shelton's Humpday.]

Steve to Jay: Do you have any views on losing him or keeping him-tel-
ling him he's a lousy actor, so you can keep him on the team? [laughs]

Jay: We talk about the pros and cons of Mark getting famous.
It would definitely help our movies get out into the world more,
but hanging out without him in LA would definitely not be as fun.

Kathy to Mark: In terms of what Jay was saying: did you ever intend
to be in Baghead, or did you always intend to be behind the camera?

Mark: We talked a little bit about me being in the movie, but we were concern-
ed that the character was going to cross over and be somewhat similar to Josh...

Kathy: From Puffy Chair.

Mark: And we didn't want it to look like, 'Oh, there
they go-Mark's in every one of their movies.'

Kathy: I'm glad you weren't.

Mark: Thank you very much! [laughs]

Kathy: I like your acting, but you know what I mean. Some directors put
themselves in every film they make. I prefer Alex Cox's approach, which
is more, 'I'll give myself a tiny part.' That's a little different, but if you're
in every film, no matter how good you are,AeP Like Mel Gibson-he finally
took himself out of the picture, and I thought, 'It's about time.'

Mark: Yeah, good move.

Jay: Even just over-exposure of popular stars. If they're in
too many films, it's amazing how quickly it turns people off.

Click here for part three

Outside the Egyptian with Deborah Person and Spence

Baghead opens at The Varsity on Friday, 8/8. Images from Mark Tomas
(SIFF photos taken on 6/8/08) and The Bloodshot Eye (Hannah still).